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Punchline Politics

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 2, 2006 8:12 AM

Forget immigration, gas prices, Iraq or Iran. The blogosphere is aflame over one of the most shocking and jaw-dropping public appearances of the modern era.

We're talking about Stephen Colbert.

Now you might think that a professional comedian hurling barbs at the White House Correspondents Dinner might be graded on a simple scale: funny or not funny.

You would be so wrong.

Colbert was devastating. He practically punched the president in the stomach. He did what all those sniveling, lapdog journalists have failed to do for the last five years!

At least, that's what the liberal bloggers say.

The conservative bloggers just say he bombed.

The liberal bloggers say he bombed because the assembled journalists were so uncomfortable. (I wasn't there, but Colbert took plenty of shots at the White House press corps, who are of course a juicy target.)

What's more, you may be interested to know that there's a MEDIA COVERUP of the Colbert performance. The MSM don't want you to know about how the Comedy Central man made them look bad! (Never mind that the thing was carried on C-SPAN and the video is widely available online. I played two clips of Colbert on my CNN show, so apparently I didn't get the memo.)

My reading is that Colbert zinged Bush as a 32-percenter a number of times and zinged the press (those 'clowns,' as he put it) an equal number of times, all in the character of the blowhard pundit he plays on television and all within the usual boundaries for such dinners. But these days, even a comic's performance sparks fierce left/right debates.

Rick Moran at Right Wing Nuthouse sounds like he's starting to defend Colbert:

"I disagree with those on the right who are skewering Stephen Colbert for his performance at the White House Correspondents dinner on Saturday night. Much of it was actually pretty funny. It's just a pity that Colbert, in his ignorance, never realized that people were laughing at him rather than at what he was saying.

"Full Fledged Moonbattery is the only way to describe Colbert's performance. All the canards were there; Iraq, WMD, the press as White House lap dogs(??), Bush the stupid, Bush the incompetent, Bush as Machiavelli (the stupidity of trying to show Bush as both dumb and evil genius lost on the clueless Colbert), as well as the usual jokes that liberals find funny about 9/11, religion, and ordinary Americans.

"The left, of course, is in rapture over Colbert's 'speaking truth to power.' I always have to scratch my head in wonderment over this little prevarication by the liberals. Does anyone seriously believe that the 'power' to shape debate, set the national agenda, color the personalities, and make or break the politicians resides with conservatives? Who are they trying to kid?"

Mash at Daily Kos is ecstatic:

"Stephen Colbert just finished speaking truthiness to power at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner. Standing at the podium only a few feet from President Bush, Colbert launched an all out assault on the policies of this Administration. It was remarkable, though painful at times, to watch. It may also have been the first time that anyone has been this blunt with this president."

Dependable Renegade believes the man is a hero:

"Stephen Colbert displayed more guts in ten minutes of performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner than the entire Bush family has in their collective lifetime. He, along with the ever-feisty Helen Thomas, deftly exposed the 'truthiness' to the world (or at least those who were watching) that Bush AND the D.C. press corps are indeed a naked emperor and his gutless courtiers."

Salon's Peter Daou is in the coverup camp:

"The AP's first stab at it and pieces from Reuters and the Chicago Tribune tell us everything we need to know: Colbert's performance is sidestepped and marginalized while Bush is treated as light-hearted, humble, and funny. Expect nothing less from the cowardly American media. The story could just as well have been Bush and Laura's discomfort and the crowd's semi-hostile reaction to Colbert's razor-sharp barbs. In fact, I would guess that from the perspective of newsworthiness and public interest, Bush-the-playful-president is far less compelling than a comedy sketch gone awry."

Mark Kleiman at Reality-Based Community suggests Colbert was too funny for his own good:

"Stephen Colbert's astonishing rant at the White House Correspondent's Association dinner hit so near the bone --BushCo's bone, and the bone of the lapdog journalists present-- that it drew few laughs, despite its superlative excellence both as text and as performance."

HuffPost's Chris Durang also uses Stephen for some press-bashing:

"Colbert's was a brave and shocking performance. And for the media to pretend it isn't newsworthy is a total bafflement. And a symbol of how shoddy and suspect the media is."

Extreme Mortman ponders the cool audience reception:

"Stephen Colbert is being roundly panned for his mean-spirited performance. He was big on edge, short on rib-tickling. And the audience? A tough crowd reacting with embarrassment and silence. From my table I counted three rounds of infectious yawns spreading around the room like the wave at football games. It's gotta be tough to hear silence when telling rat-a-tat jokes in front of 3,000 people. Imagine singing the Spanish Star Spangled Banner to the Minutemen. Even worse, these were mostly drunk reporters -- normally an easy mark. Colbert's editorial act quickly sobered folks up like an unwelcome buzz kill, like a newspaper's retirement buyout offer was rescinded."

And one more, from the New Republic's Noam Scheiber: "I'm a big Stephen Colbert fan, a huge Bush detractor, and I think the White House press corps has been out to lunch for much of the last five years. (Though, unlike many in the blogosphere, I don't think that's because White House reporters are lazy or stupid.) That should have made me the ideal audience-member for Colbert's performance at this weekend's White House Correspondents' Dinner. As it happens, though, I laughed out loud maybe twice during Colbert's entire 20-odd minute routine. Colbert's problem, blogosphere conspiracy theories notwithstanding, is that he just wasn't very entertaining."

Not as entertaining as the conspiracy theories, at least.

I guess Bush felt that if he didn't say something about a certain three-year anniversary--it's a "turning of the tide"--that the media would mark it for him.

Josh Marshall sees a Day That Will Live in Infamy:

"Yes, three years ago, President Bush declared Mission Accomplished in Iraq.

"I think this will go down as the symbol of the Bush administration -- like Carter's malaise speech, Bush's father with the carton of milk, LBJ falling on his metaphorical sword in a nationally televised address. It captures everything. The arrogance. The dingbat personality cult. The fleeting triumph of Potemkin stagecraft over tangible accomplishment. The happy willingness to let others take care of the president's messes."

Here we go again: USA Today has Bush at "the lowest approval rating of his presidency"--34 percent--at least compared to previous USA Today polls (but not to the spate of polls in the last two months that had W. in the low thirties). How many times can a president hit the "lowest ever" without really moving?

Andrew Sullivan responds to criticism by John Hinderaker that he's become a naysayer on Iraq. First, Hinderaker:

"The fact that half of all deaths caused by terrorists last year were in Iraq is consistent with what the terrorists themselves often tell us: Iraq is the central front in the global war against Islamic terrorism. The old Andrew Sullivan would have understood that this means we should fight to win in Iraq, not cut and run. To the extent that people are being murdered by home-grown terrorists in Iraq, as opposed to Zarqawi, et al, the perpetrators are the very same Baathist thugs who, until we overthrew Saddam, controlled Iraq's government. For thirty years, they ruled Iraq through a ruthless campaign of violence that killed many thousands of Iraqis (300,000 is a number that is commonly cited) and terrorized the rest. It is obvious to the Iraqis themselves that it is a good thing that these people are now out of power rather than in power. Why isn't it obvious to Andrew?

"Well, if John has been reading this blog, he will know that I do not in any way favor a cut-and-run strategy in Iraq. He will also know that I have shed no tears, except of joy, about Saddam's demise, and only recently linked to a report showing how Saddam's sons were preparing 'martyrdom operations' in London before they were deposed. I'm just concerned, as any sentient being at this point would be, that our occupation strategy never created the stability essential for the good things Powerline and I both want for Iraq. I think it's unfair to describe me in this sense as a defeatist. I want victory. I link to any reasonable glimmer of hope I can find; and I still have not given up on a decent outcome. I'm just a realist about how far away from victory the Bush administration's war-management has taken us."

Rush Limbaugh , describing the settlement of his drug case, says he no longer feels the urge to pop painkilling pills.

McCain for SecDef? In the Weekly Standard, the idea registers high on the Ari Richter scale:

"No one can match McCain's eloquence when it comes to talking about being a part of a cause larger than oneself. That's the message Americans need to hear--and believe--if there's any hope of regaining widespread public support for the difficult work ahead in Iraq.

"Okay, but what about McCain? He wants to be president, not a cabinet member. What's in it for him?

"Like it or not, his political fate is already tied to what happens in Iraq. Although he's been clear in his disagreements with Rumsfeld, McCain nevertheless embraced the war as appropriate and continues to insist on success. If, say, Sen. Allen has also been a steadfast supporter of the war, many Americans don't know it simply because most Americans still don't know him. McCain (the senior senator from Meet the Press) has no such cover.

"And yet, as a senator, there's almost nothing McCain can do to change our fortunes in Iraq. As secretary of Defense, on the other hand, he could certainly make an impact. At the same time, he would be freed from the burdens of the Senate, which although exceptionally fertile ground for presidential ambition is notoriously unproductive soil for victorious campaigns."

Take it from me: It would blow up his campaign like an IED.

By the way: Did you really think that Bill Frist & Co. would tax the oil companies?

"Senate Republicans on Monday hurriedly abandoned a broad tax proposal opposed by the oil industry and business leaders, another sign of their struggle to come up with an acceptable political and legislative answer to high gasoline prices," says the New York Times.

Why? Can't be offending the base: "The retreat came after a torrent of objections from business leaders and their advocates, who typically view Republicans in Congress as allies. They said they had been blindsided by the inclusion of the proposal as a central element of the Republican leadership's energy package late last week."

Kevin Drum is getting gas pains:

"I'll confess that I'm a little tired of columns expressing outrage about our bipartisan temper tantrum over $3 gasoline -- where were these guys last year when Dick Cheney's energy industry giveaway passed? -- but there's certainly no arguing with the underlying charge:

"Most Republicans, constrained by an ideological resistance to federal regulation, have always opposed tougher mandates. But achieving better fuel economy was once a passion of Democrats. In 1990, 42 of the Senate's 55 Democrats -- about three-fourths -- voted to require automakers to reach 40 mpg by 2001. That bill drew 57 votes overall, but failed amid opposition from President George H.W. Bush and a Republican-led filibuster.

"Idiots. But then there's this:

"Under pressure from the auto companies and auto workers, Democrats have retreated ever since. President Clinton didn't seriously try to raise fuel economy standards. Last year, a proposal from Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to require a 40-mpg average for cars by 2016 drew just 28 votes; only about half of the Senate's 44 Democrats voted yes. Those voting no included every Senate Democrat considering a 2008 presidential bid.

"Idiots. Mileage standards work. If we had passed that bill in 1990, oil consumption in the United States would probably be 10% lower than it is today at virtually no cost to the economy and no inconvenience to consumers. That's a savings of about two billion barrels of oil a year -- and there are other things we could do to double that number with only modest pain.

"(And ANWR? If Republicans were willing to act like grownups on the efficiency side, I'd say we should just open the damn thing up. It won't make a lot of difference, but at the same time, it also won't cause very much damage.)"

Well, you can't call Anna Nicole Smith a gold-digger any more. Now you have to call her a gold-digger with a unanimous Supreme Court ruling under her, uh, belt.

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