Colbert's bit as the closing speaker of the White House Correspondents dinner on Saturday night was performance art at its best, resurrecting the weird and uncomfortable glory of Andy Kaufman doing his immigrant's immitation of Jimmy Carter only to do a spot on riff on Elvis, or the unclean depths of "The Aristocrats."
Those in attendance laughed nervously, feeling the sweat on their brows as Colbert unloaded a steady barrage of sharp and, I must say, accurate barbs at our President. One diarist at DailyKos called it "playing to the back of the room," it being all the more courageous because "there actually wasn't a back of the room there." Indeed. I know that if I -- and I am no fan of the President -- had been present, I, too, would have had sweat beading on my brow, and would have switched my gaze nervously between the exhiliration of watching Colbert engage in the best kind of roast imaginable, and the horror of watching Bush and Laura take it in. It took courage even to watch.
It was a stunt, but a stunt of the highest order.
And of course, if there was anything to "get" about it, Bush and his staff failed or feigned to fail to do so. US News & World Report had this (emphasis mine):
Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert's biting routine at the White House Correspondents Association dinner won a rare silent protest from Bush aides and supporters Saturday when several independently left before he finished.I bet he did. But good for Colbert. This is a nation of laws, not of men, and while the office of the Presidency should retain a certain aura, that aura was surely blown by Bush's perfomance earlier in the evening with an impersonator. Colbert's performance was a inside-out criticism of the President and his policies, and if that crosses the line, then I'm in the wrong country.
"Colbert crossed the line," said one top Bush aide, who rushed out of the hotel as soon as Colbert finished. Another said that the president was visibly angered by the sharp lines that kept coming.
"I've been there before, and I can see that he is [angry]," said a former top aide. "He's got that look that he's ready to blow."
UPDATE: Troy Patterson gets it just right at Slate.com:
You hire a good political satirist, you get good political satire, which is necessarily dangerous. So, when the Washington Post's "Reliable Source" column speaks of the "consensus" that the routine "fell flat" and New York Daily News gossip—and "Reliable Source" alumnus—Lloyd Grove writes that Colbert "bombed badly," they are offering meaningless reportage. Pop Dadaist that he is, Colbert wasn't bombing so much as freaking his audience out for his own enjoyment.UPDATE II: And, of course, Markos at DailyKos also gets it exactly right:
Colbert, like many of us, is crashing the gate in DC . The natives, not used to getting more than Jay Leno-style good-natured ribbing, don't like it when one of their own gets a serious dose of reality. [NB: "crashing the gate" is a reference to Markos's and Jerome Armstrong's highly readable and recommended book -- buy it and read it, just so you know what's coming.]