Colbert's speech, which spanned just under a half hour, was done in the comedian's conservative Republican character and amounted to an extended tongue-in-cheek defense of George W. Bush's presidency and the media's lack of scrutiny of his claims regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
At issue was a heavily nuanced, often ironic performance by Mr. Colbert, who got in many licks at the president — on the invasion of Iraq, on the administration's penchant for secrecy, on domestic eavesdropping — with lines that sounded supportive of Mr. Bush but were quickly revealed to be anything but. And all this after Mr. Colbert tried, at the outset, to soften up the president by mocking his intelligence, saying that he and Mr. Bush were "not so different," by which he meant, he explained, "we're not brainiacs on the nerd patrol."
Soon, the liberal left -- particularly on the web -- seized on the speech as a perfect encapsulation of everything wrong with Washington, politicians and the media. Colbert told the truth about Bush and the press; Bush and the media gave him the silent treatment. Wrote Peter Daou, a Democratic activist, in a piece on Huffington Post that slammed the coverage of Colbert's speech:
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, a pissed-off prez, and a shell-shocked audience... This is the power of the media to choose the news, to decide when and how to shield Bush from negative publicity.
Liberal columnist Dan Froomkin, who at the time was working for the Post, wrote of a "willful disregard" by the mainstream media for the real story: "That a captive, peevish president (and his media lapdogs) actually had to sit and listen as someone explained to them what they had done wrong; that the Bush Bubble was forcibly violated, right there on national television."
I was there that night. I believe it was the first White House Correspondents Dinner I had been to. (Full disclosure: I have been to every one since. Also, #humblebrag!) And, it probably won't surprise you that I was stunned by how big a deal Colbert's speech became. My relatively vague memory of that night -- my wife and I have had two children between that night and today so my recall is in pretty rough shape -- was that Colbert was funny and relatively well received. (In my defense: I had no frame of reference because I had never been to one of these dinners before and was spending most of my time trying to celebrity-watch.)
Others, meanwhile, panned the speech, calling it unfunny and/or disrespectful. Here's Post columnist Richard Cohen's column, titled "So Not Funny":
On television, Colbert is often funny. But on his own show he appeals to a self-selected audience that reminds him often of his greatness. In Washington he was playing to a different crowd, and he failed dismally in the funny person's most solemn obligation: to use absurdity or contrast or hyperbole to elucidate -- to make people see things a little bit differently. He had a chance to tell the president and much of important (and self-important) Washington things it would have been good for them to hear. But he was, like much of the blogosphere itself, telling like-minded people what they already know and alienating all the others. In this sense, he was a man for our times.He also wasn't funny.
The reaction was so negative that Slate, which was then known for its contrarian takes (a.k.a. "Slatepitches"), defended him.
So, I went back and watched the speech today to see what (if anything) I missed. And, there's no question that Colbert's speech was more pointed -- and less well received -- than other speeches at the Correspondents Dinner that I've heard since. There are a fair number of awkward moments in there that young me simply missed. I am still not totally convinced that this was a massive truth bomb dropped by Colbert. But, it was a more cutting routine than comedians since him have done.
What's is clear is that the White House Correspondents Association was spooked by the whole Colbert controversy. The next year the guest of honor was impressionist Rich Little who delivered a speech as far from Colbert's biting sarcasm as you might imagine he would.
The guest this year is "Saturday Night Live" star Cecily Strong who has pledged to not "be too mean where it really hurts somebody." So, in other words, Colbert's place as the most controversial Correspondents Dinner speaker ever is likely to hold for another year.