Saturday, April 21, 2007

The White House Correspondent's Dinner

King Lear: Dost thou call me a fool, boy?

Last year, Colbert was brilliant and punctured the external bubble that surrounds President Bush. Bush, however, has layers of bubbles.

The White House correspondents are handling the president with only one kid glove these days instead of two. It's an improvement but not by much. Have the correspondents learned much, or are they more interested in the media slots that offer seven and eight figure salaries these days? The White House press room has often been the path to riches in the media. And a kind of senility regarding the responsibilities of the press ('But I have my family to think about!' (Does this include third and fourth cousins?)).

William Douglas of the McClatchy Washington Bureau has an interesting take on this year's White House Correspondent's dinner:
Impressionist Rich Little hasn't been hot since Nehru Jackets and go-go boots were hip. But the mild-mannered 68-year-old nightclub performer will be the headline act at Saturday's White House Correspondents Association dinner - and the salve for the dagger-sharp tongue of Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, who at last year's dinner satirically slashed President Bush and the Washington press corps beyond recognition.

The selection of Little after Colbert's pointed monologue has produced tons of jokes (What? Nipsey Russell wasn't available?) and amplified screams from the blogosphere that Little's invitation proves how soft the White House press corps is on Bush.


The idea behind hiring Little - best known for his impressions of Richard Nixon, Clint Eastwood and other old-school personalities - was to have a nice dinner where Bush could get "singed but not burned" by the evening's entertainment, according to Steve Scully, president of the White House Correspondents Association.

"You can't invite a guest of honor to come and be a political pinata," said Scully, a political editor at C-SPAN. "There's a very fine line we don't want to cross out of respect for the institution of the presidency."


It's hard to be funny, according to comedian-director David Steinberg - and it's even harder in Washington, D.C.

"It's always been a weird audience," said Steinberg, host of TV Land's "Sit Down Comedy with David Steinberg." "It takes itself too seriously. They don't realize that the comedian won't hurt them."

TV Land? I don't know if Douglas is writing a serious article or has a very dry sense of humor. I know I laughed a lot reading the article. TV Land? Rich Little? Classics? Dinosaurs? Fossils? Mayberry?

There was an old tradition of court jesters giving succor to their rulers but they were at times given license to mock the king. By all means, parody the nonsense that surrounds a court. Tell the emperor the truth but do it with humor. Puncture that hubris of the Khan but do it gently, but not too gently—those bubbles are made of tough material.

King Lear was an old and foolish king who split his kingdom between two daughters who did not exactly revere him and he banished the only daughter who truly loved him. He issued his decrees based on his fantasy view of his world rather than based on the world as it truly was. As expected, fiasco followed. Here's Shakespeare, Act I:
King Lear: Dost thou call me a fool, boy?

The Fool: All thy other titles thou hast given away that thou wast born with.

Earl of Kent: This is not altogether fool, my lord.

Fool: No, faith, lords and great men will not let me; if I had a monopoly out, they would have part of it: and ladies too, they will not let me have all fool to myself; they'll be snatching. Give me an egg, uncle, and I'll give thee two crowns.

Lear: What two crowns shall they be?

Fool: Why, after I have cut the egg i' the middle and eat up the meat, the two crowns of the egg! When thou clovest thy crown i' the middle, and gavest away both parts, thou borest thy ass on thy back o'er the dirt. Thou hadst little wit in thy bald crown, when thou gavest thy golden one away. If I speak like myself in this, let him be whipped that first finds it so.
[The Fool sings]
Fools had ne'er less wit in a year:
For wise men are grown foppish,
They know not how their wits to wear,
Their manners are so apish.
Lear: When were you wont to be so full of songs, sirrah?

Fool: I have used them, uncle, ever since thou madest thy daughters thy mother: for when thou gavest them the rod, and put'st down thine own breeches,
[more singing]
Then they for sudden joy did weep,
And I for sorrow sung,
That such a king should play bo-peep,
And go the fools among.

I'll leave to the reader to decide if George W. Bush or his father is the current King Lear. The father is not innocent in the current presidential debacle but, like Lear, he is a more sympathetic character.

But Rich Little, if he chooses, has an obvious target in George W. Bush and even Dick Cheney. Both are playing a game of trying to out-Nixon Nixon and classic mimic Little is still a superb master of glowering while he mutters, "I'm not a crook." I doubt Little will have the nerve to puncture Bush's balloon or to bring down the president's hubris a notch or two. The truth is that the country would relish it and the country needs it. We need to know that the White House correspondents themselves know that there's a limit to how much they should be expected to take our emperor seriously, particularly a failed one.

As things now stand, whether court jesters, or licensed fools, or stand-up comedians show up at the correspondent's dinner, there's a pretentious quality to these correspondents who wish to honor the presidency while we have a president who does little to honor and respect the US Constitution or even the history of his own office.

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