An anticipated edition of “The Colbert Report” last night made big headlines, even before it aired. Host Stephen Colbert handed over the direction of the Colbert Super PAC to Comedy Central colleague Jon Stewart, whereupon Colbert declared the establishment of a exploratory committee “for my possible candidacy for president of the United States of South Carolina.”
The segment included a cameo by Trevor Potter, Colbert’s super PAC lawyer and a former Federal Elections Commission chairman. Potter answered the legal questions involved in the super PAC transfer and assisted with the paperwork.
The fun and games lasted about seven minutes. Seven highly educational minutes, that is. Ever since super PACs emerged — following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in January 2010 — serious journalism has attempted to explain them, to investigate them, to follow their every move. There’s been no shortage of the serious journalism on super PACs: Every serious journalistic outlet, from the Huffington Post through the New York Times through every serious broadcast outlet.
All this serious journalism on super PACs has stressed — to astounding redundancy — that the super PACs may not coordinate their activities with a candidate that they’re supporting. That notion is a matter of rote learning for any politically involved U.S. citizen.
Yet the whole concept gained a level of clarity and poignancy in last night’s Colbert segment that hundreds of thousands of acts of serious journalism never managed to accomplish. To wit:
When Colbert asked Potter if he could hold onto his precious super PAC and still be a candidate of some sort, Potter answered, “No.”
But then, Potter: “You could have it run by somebody else.”
Colbert: “Wait, what, wait, what? Someone else can take it over?”
Potter: “Yes, but someone who you would not be coordinating with in terms of PAC ads and strategy.”
Enter Stewart, a Colbert crony. They joked to Potter that they were business partners in a joint bagel shop-cum-travel agency From Schmear to Eternity. Would the biz partners stop Stewart from taking over direction of the Colbert PAC? they asked Potter. The answer:
“Being business partners does not count as coordination, legally.” The business partners reacted giddily and signed a document effecting the transfer of the super PAC to Stewart. They called it, “The definitely-not-coordinating-with-Stephen-Colbert super PAC.”
The show proved that serious journalism is no match for our campaign finance laws. Satire is the only way to appreciate them.