Am I Laughing or Crying? Barrump-bump!
By Mary Lyon
The 2007 edition of the White House Correspondents Association dinner took quite a trip back to the "good old days." Or not. Perhaps the organizers thought last years's bash, with the pungent and maybe a little too pointed satire by Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, was a little too much. So they reverted from the cutting edge and toward a reliable old wooden swizzle stick. Our special guest entertainer was veteran celebrity impersonator Rich Little, very willing to return and to play it safe. Heaven forbid that George W. Bush be left scowling at the end, again this year. Reality has been tough enough on him. Let's just dwell on the good news, shall we? Far better to trot out a hoary old relic from a bygone era when Sheckys could be Sheckys and Myron Cohen was the guy to beat on the "Ed Sullivan Show," when Johnny Carson had but one divorce to smirk about, when Jon Stewart was only dreaming of training wheels, when David Letterman and Paul Schafer still had hair, and when presidential henchmen merely forgot to take the duct tape off an opponent's office lock.
Rich Little did try. He avoided political humor (oh, no, we dare not go THERE again. The king might not be amused) preferring that found in a musty old men's room of 30 years ago. Little was doing Friars' Club an institution as much of an antique as he is, by now, himself. Sometimes, with the cute little piano tinkling behind him to accompany his songs, I could have sworn he was channeling the insufferable boob Mark Russell a guy who isn't funny, but who works like hell in fact bares down hard enough to beat any pregnant woman in the late stages of labor to make sure you know you're supposed to think he's funny.
A scan of the audience indicated that its members, for the most part, didn't get it. None of the bits necessarily went over their heads as much as rolling under the tables past their feet. No wonder the Lowball President thought they were hilarious. The japes were so low they actually slid underneath his poll numbers. My husband admitted that while he was recording this for me, he spent much of his time wincing. Upon viewing the replay myself, I did, too.
This is how they followed last year's sly, satirical zing-fest with Stephen Colbert? I felt for attendees like the lovely girl in the strapless red gown who was sitting there stonefaced during one reaction shot. I could tell she was wishing she was somewhere in Connecticut doing a nice Saturday evening yoga session with Letterman.
I've attended more than a few funerals in my day. Everybody listening to the eulogy is traditionally eager for a few little chuckles to distract from the sorrow, dwelling on memories of better times and happier days with the loved one now lost. This gathering felt pretty funereal, too. Of course there was a leftover pall in the air from the events earlier in the week at Virginia Tech. Mercifully and somewhat unexpectedly, Dubya refrained from any of his characteristic smart-ass remarks and idiotic language-mangling. Even he recognized how people in the room probably would understand some mild amusement (why many of them had shown up for the festivities in the first place) but most likely still didn't feel much like laughing. So out trotted someone guaranteed to be mildly amusing at best, to fit the occasion. Playing it safe again, of course. But then again, could the White House Press Corpse be expected to do anything less? Maybe that's REALLY why they weren't laughing.
Rich Little wasn't the only thing that wasn't very funny. Neither was the whole timbre of the evening. Symtomatic, perhaps. Our national condition isn't very funny, either. Our Constitution on life-support after our torture-loving, political vendetta-pushing attorney general displayed his command of executive Alzheimers' during Senate panel questioning isn't very funny. The hard-on to keep feeding our soldiers into an endless meatgrinder in Baghdad isn't very funny. Ironic how there can be an undercurrent of over-wrought emotions about the bloodbath that started the week at Virginia Tech, but nothing similar for the MORE-THAN-ONE HUNDRED TIMES THAT MANY DEATHS among our troops in Iraq. No tears shed for them. No national day of mourning for them. No candlelight vigils and presidential personages laying tastefully somber memorial bouquets on makeshift shrines. At Virginia Tech, at least, the tragic and needless death toll will stand as is. In Iraq, it won't stop, thanks to this president who eased back in his chair, chuckling alongside other floral festoons on Saturday night, enjoying yet another fun, easy, no muss/no fuss, accountability-free evening.
As of this writing, I suspect there might be something else that has wiped the smirks off at least a few of the faces of the White House Press Corpse. Some of their friends at www.editorandpublisher.com report taking delivery of a preview DVD of a new documentary by Bill Moyers scheduled to air on PBS four days after the big Saturday night social. Called "Buying the War," its focus is on the very same people dressed up for their rendezvous with Bush, Rich Little, some nice smoked salmon, a fleeting glimpse of a chastened Alberto Gonzales hiding out at the USA Today table or maybe even a sighting of recent "American Idol" reject Sanjaya Malakar. Greg Mitchell of E&P calls the Moyers program "devastating," "the most powerful indictment of the news media for falling down in its duties in the run-up to the war in Iraq" in which numerous reporters and pundits are interviewed. Not surprisingly, "several prominent media figures, prodded by Moyers, admit the media failed miserably, though few take personal responsibility."
By now, I'm hoarse from screaming at my TV, waiting in vain to hear the same kind of probing questions routinely machine-gunned at any Democrat or liberal on the panel applied equally to republi-CON guests. The Tim Russerts and Chris Matthewses and Wolf Blitzers of the media are only now starting to tiptoe in that direction, and roughly a decade late. The GOP people all too frequently get the softballs, or even better, their own White House/RNC talking points are obediently parroted back at them by whatever cowardly stenographer/interviewer sits across the table from them. Little they say is challenged or probed, the inherent lies and deceptions exposed. The relentless, blood-thirsty grilling is consistently reserved exclusively for Democrats, liberals, and progressives. No wonder Alberto Gonzales seemed so adrift while avoiding any straight answers to the Senate Judiciary Committee. He and his "loyal Bushie" friends just aren't used to being on the receiving end of this kind of thing. They're supposed to be dishing it out not taking it.
Just recently has that shameful status quo barely even started to change. Only now do the folks on the banquet dais proudly proclaim that the legendary Helen Thomas will be assured her traditional seat down front in the new-and-improved White House Press digs. Time was, after Thomas alone began asking uncomfortably pointed questions of Bush and/or his spokesperson, she was rudely banished to the back of the room, and NOT A SINGLE ONE of her colleagues ever stood up for her or complained on her behalf. Just since January has there been ANY serious questioning of this administration's misdeeds beyond that of the solitary Patrick Fitzgerald behind closed doors. For a long time, I was proud of my former profession, and missed it after I retired. Now, I'm embarrassed, even ashamed by the news business that I left behind, and relieved that I no longer have to be part of it. At this point, these folks can't even do a roast well anymore, for fear that they'll offend perhaps the most offensive president who's ever looked askance at Constitutional dictates, much less wipe his muddy track shoes all over them.
The entire White House Correspondents' Association affair was no laughing matter as far as what it represented metaphorically. I don't know if any item on the menu stuck in the throats of the Washington media people as much as their own guilt may have. Or should have. Probably not. They've spent too long perfecting the art of the automatic swallow. Old habits die hard. A bland diet is far preferable to a second helping of satirical shish-kabob. Not for me, though. Not as long as this administration remains so safely surrounded by its coterie of watchdogs-turned-lapdogs. As a chaser to the Rich Little milk and cookies, I offer a link to a much zestier cocktail from Stephen Colbert who last year presented a banquet of just desserts the way it should be served. And to a most deserving crowd.
It's not that the White House Correspondents Association folks can't take a joke. More accurately they ARE one. And it isn't very funny.
Then go DO something about it.