There have been hundreds of articles about the recent 2016 event, in a way Barack Obama's initial farewell speech to the world. The articles about his words and those of his selected comedian Larry Willmore, were evaluated on the laughs and that most important element for media success, edginess. Before embarking on this essay, I did a search for other "critical theoretical" evaluations of this event. There was this one by Frank Rich of the N.Y. Times of the 2007 dinner, mostly focusing on how it breached the distance required between Press and Government needed to do incisive probing reporting. And this broader criticism from The Christian Science Monitor of the same year.
This is a difficult essay to write, as we all are awash in a sea of entertainment. Since the panorama of emergent events is so complex, so multi-determinant, so out of the control of individuals -- we may as well turn the march of events into laughter, and show that we are all good sports who can enjoy a joke. Mass movements are the products less of individuals reaching their own conclusions than of contagion. This is the nature of panicked crowds being suffocated or lynch mobs doing their deeds with boisterous abandon. It is why political pundits talk about a campaigns momentum, people wanting to be part of a crowd, even when it's invisible.
Obama's legacy should not be that "he killed" metaphorically with his jokes, since part of the responsibilities of the Commander-in-Chief, is real killing. Larry Willmore, alluded to this:
"But I have to say, it's great, it looks like you're really enjoying your last year of the presidency.Saw you hanging out with NBA players like Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors. That was cool. That was cool, yeah. You know it kinda makes sense, too, because both of you like raining down bombs on people from long distances, right? What? Am I wrong?"
President smiled, displaying a hint of an impulse to respond, but the
image that remained was the broad smile. He was trapped in the spirit
of the evening; this man who has been given the awesome authority to
reign down death, something he sees as a responsibility in the face of a
lethal enemy. He could not break the mood of the elite having a grand
old time, and nothing like considering the reality of the business end
of this sanitized method of killing was going to be allowed to break the
A friend I was discussing this with pointed out that there is a more outrageous example of the excesses of this annual event. This one was President George W. Bush being the main character in a mordant parody of perhaps the worse "error" of judgement in recent history, the claim of certainty of existence of WMD in Iraq.
It was a 30 second video riff shown in his 2004 speech pretending he is searching the oval office, saying for each area he looked, "no it's not under here" as the audience laughed hysterically. This video intersperses his mock search with brief segments of the atrocities that we committed in Abu Ghraib, shown here to illustrate how easily his "comic" routine would be used to foment hatred against this country, generalization to be against the entire non-Muslim world. We all are still paying dearly for this riff that spread around the world
A President of the United States may be blessed with a natural sense of humor, but never should be put into a position where comedic sensibilities override the awesome responsibility of the office. If a President is to play to an audience, it is to the people of the United States as the leader of this country and the entire world.
What did get some serious press wasn't Obama's smile at being reminded of his use of lethal drones, but these final words of Larry Willmore:
Thank you for being a good sport, Mr. President, but all jokes aside, let me just say how much it means for me to be here tonight. I've always joked that I voted for the president because he's black. And people say, "Well, do you agree with his policies?" And I always said, "I agree with the policy that he's black." I said, "As long as he keeps being black, I'm good." They'd say, "What about Iraq?" "Is he still black?" But behind that joke is a humble appreciation for the historical implications for what your presidency means.
When I was a kid, I lived in a country where people couldn't accept a black quarterback. Now think about that. A black man was thought by his mere color not good enough to lead a football team -- and now, to live in your time, Mr. President, when a black man can lead the entire free world. Words alone do me no justice. So, Mr. President, if i'm going to keep it 100:
Yo, Barry, you did it, my nigga, You did it.
This video describes a question to the Presidential press secretary about Wilmore's use of this word, and how the President felt about it, which was fine. It's telling that the subject of making a joke of his use of lethal drones didn't raise an eyebrow, just as Bush's riff on the non-existent WMD that triggered violent death and destruction with no end in sight. . What got the country's attention was, as described in the press, "the use of the N-word" (see addendum) Mass slaughter of innocents is no big deal if it's presented in good fun, but use of an epithet for a race is a genuine sin, complete with proscription against reproducing the actual word, just as Muslims feel about a depiction of their prophet.
The word is so satanic that it overshadowed what Willmore was really expressing, which was a very personal statement, that I understand as this: "When we were children, being black meant we couldn't even head a football team, and you have demolished all of this. Those days the echo of "n-word" was heard by the mob of hooded bigots about to slaughter one of us. Now a hateful word for us is forbidden, yet I say it boldly in the new meaning that you have made possible, as a sign of great affection and appreciation for what you have done for our people. And for me, this transcends anything else. So I express it in a way that has a different meaning, ......."My n-word, my friend, you did it."