Stephen Colbert becomes another circus of Congress's making

Comedian Stephen Colbert testifies on Capitol Hill in front of the House Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration.
By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Stephen Colbert is no Elmo -- which is why it was crazy for House Democrats to have him testify before a subcommittee last week about migrant labor.

(Read the transcript of Colbert's testimony)

Speaker Nancy Pelosi proclaimed it "great" that a celebrity such as Colbert "can bring attention to an important issue like immigration." Majority Leader Steny Hoyer had it only half right when he described Colbert's appearance as "an embarrassment." The wrong part was deeming the episode embarrassing "for Mr. Colbert more than the House."

He wishes. Mr. Leader -- have you watched his show? To be Stephen Colbert is to be immune from embarrassment.

(For more Washington Post coverage of the Colbert hearing, read Dana Milbank's Colbert meets angry conservatives and Lisa de Moraes's Mr. Colbert goes to Washington)

I don't want to come across as humorless here; I'm a huge Colbert fan. And I'm not naive about the elevated state of congressional proceedings; hence the Elmo reference. The adorable Muppet testified in furry red splendor about the importance of musical education back in 2002, when Republicans were in charge.

(Read about Elmo's role in the government's swine flu response, too)

In an age when celebrity rules, Congress can't be expected to resist the allure. It's too late in the game to get all sniffy about "expert" testimony from celebrities: Angelina Jolie on refugees, Bono on AIDS, Loretta Swit on "crush videos."

So if celebrities want to harness their fame for good, and if lawmakers want to get in on the act, that's fine. I have no problem if Lady Gaga and Harry Reid -- on the issue of don't ask, don't tell -- are Twitter pals.

But Colbert's testimony was not history repeating itself as farce -- it was history starting as farce. That's to be expected when lawmakers appear, at their own risk, on "The Colbert Report." But there is a difference between lawmakers electing to be a prop in Colbert's show and letting Colbert turn their show into his prop.

And that's what happened before the House Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee. The panel's chair, California Democrat Zoe Lofgren, invited Colbert to appear after they spent a day picking vegetables at a New York farm as part of the United Farm Workers' "Take Our Jobs" campaign.

Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers tried to save Lofgren from her stunt. "I would like to recommend that, now that we've got all this attention, that you excuse yourself," he told Colbert.

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