Stephen Colbert’s truthiness will set you free.
Poor Daryl Hannah. For all of her trouble getting arrested in front of the White House on Aug. 30, she received nothing but a few tepid “Splash” references and was the butt of a joke in Washington’s newspaper of record. Doesn’t the former 1980s eye-candy star know that corn porn will beat angry mermaids every time?
It remains unclear whether Hannah managed to bring any more public awareness to her cause—stopping construction of an Alberta-to-Houston tar sand oil pipeline—than the non-celebrity protesters sitting on the sidewalk in front of the White House did. After snarking, “Hannah and her resisters … arrested for a good cause. Yawn,” the Washington Post couldn’t be troubled to tell us what tar sand is, much less why we should be wary of it.
In contrast, political satirist Stephen Colbert shows Hannah how it’s done. Colbert wants everyone to know how ludicrous he thinks so-called Super Political Action Committees (PACs) are, so he went to the Federal Election Commission June 30 and got the green light to start his own. After taping the tedious proceedings inside the FEC chambers, for use later on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” he emerged victorious in his Bill O’Reilly-inspired alter ego to a press conference outside. As fans held signs that said, “cash and checks only,” Colbert declared, “I don’t know about you, but I do not accept limits on my free speech. I do not accept the status quo. But I do accept Visa, Mastercard and American Express. Fifty dollars or less, please, then I do not need to keep a record.”
Colbert’s satire was inspired by recent Supreme Court rulings, including the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC, which paved the way for unlimited cash contributions to PACs from corporations, unions, and other organizations—thus was born the “Super PAC,” the hottest buzzword for wily campaign fundraising since the phrase “527 group” hit the scene in 2004.
“I believe that the Citizens United decision was the right one,” he told Politico when filing the FEC papers for his PAC—Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.
“There should be unlimited corporate money, and I want some of it. I don’t want to be the one chump who doesn’t have any.”
He may be spoofing, but he’s not kidding. Using his wildly popular nightly cable program—which averages 1.5 million viewers a night and beats titans like Jay Leno among the 18 to 34 age demographic—he raised enough money to air two ads during the Ames Straw Poll in August. Taking direct aim at the pandering and the disproportionate resources poured into this quadrennial Midwestern event, the ad, funded and approved by Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, insists in a classic Colbert voiceover that it does better “cornography” than its competitors, including the pro-Rick Perry “Jobs for Iowa” Super PAC.
Colbert’s ad goes a step further and asks Iowa voters to write in Perry on the ballot (the Texas governor had not yet declared at the time) by spelling “Parry with an ‘A,’ that’s ‘A’ for America, with ‘A’ for Iowa.” The state GOP has so far refused to announce just how many voters did that—but the number of headlines generated by the ad, the bashing Colbert gave to a local television station that wouldn’t air it, and news that his PAC’s treasurer left to work for Perry have done more for Colbert’s crusade than any effort to generate outrage by say, Ben Affleck or Tim Robbins.
“Colbert is not just another comedian with barbed punch lines and a racy vocabulary. He is a guerrilla fighter, a master of the old-world art of irony,” offered writer Michael Scherer in 2006, shortly after Colbert’s nuclear takedown of President George W. Bush, to his face, at that year’s Washington Correspondents Dinner, the annual narcissistic convergence of Washington-Hollywood-Press elite.
“The depth of his attack caused bewilderment on the face of the president and some of the press, who, like myopic fish, are used to ignoring the water that sustains them. … Political Washington is accustomed to more direct attacks that follow the rules. We tend to like the bland buffoonery of Jay Leno or insider jokes that drop lots of names and enforce everyone’s clubby self-satisfaction.”
The pervasiveness of the new Colbert brand, and his seeming enchantment of a young audience that is totally done with supercilious talking heads, hypocrites, and Hollywood sanctimony, has politicians lining up to be the targets of his sweet vituperations nearly every night.
Clearly, conservative pols have the most to lose, but as Republicans like Ron Paul have found out easily enough in several painless on-air interviews, Colbert appreciates the “truthiness” in a public figure over the cheaper laughs he might get by caricaturing his or her positions. “I don’t know how to feel about you,” Colbert told Paul in 2007. “I am passionately ambivalent.”
In August, Colbert invited Republican pollster Frank Luntz onto his show to help shape the messaging for his new Super PAC. In the segment, Colbert exposes the cynicism of the game while fanning Luntz’s ego and promoting his consulting business. Call it guerilla irony, but both men got what they wanted from the exchange.
Not everyone emerges so unscathed, and most of Colbert’s nightly monologues are fashioned to skewer right-wing orthodoxy. But conservatives know there are fools and fakes and easy caricatures in every movement, and they can enjoy seeing Colbert weed theirs out.
“While he’s liberal, conservatives can laugh easily with him or at him, too,” said Larry Sabato, a politics professor at the University of Virginia and familiar TV analyst. “There is plenty to poke fun at,” he told TAC, “and it is always helpful to have people point out the naked emperors in our midst.”
Colbert brought this to the table, in character, when he testified in front of a House subcommittee on the issue of migrant farm workers last year. “This is America. I don’t want a tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American, then sliced by a Guatemalan, and served by a Venezuelan in a spa, where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian. Because my great-grandfather did not travel across 4,000 miles of the Atlantic Ocean to see this country overrun by immigrants,” he charged, blowing past prepared remarks he had circulated to the press and the committee.
Colbert didn’t reserve his sarcasm for Republican proponents of tougher immigration laws, like his obvious bête noire, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), but also turned it on Democrats who thought they’d get the ballyhooed “Colbert bump” from his appearance in the hearing room.
“My name is Stephen Colbert and I’m an American citizen. It is an honor and a privilege to be here today. Congresswoman [Zoe] Lofgren asked me to share my vast experience spending one day as a migrant farm worker,” he deadpanned. “I trust that following my testimony, both sides will work together on this issue in the best interest of America, as you always do…”
“They went up against one of the most brilliant minds anywhere and they did not know what to do with him,” recalled Pete Dominick, a Sirius XM Radio host and comedian who recently resumed his nightly warm-up act for “The Colbert Report.”
“The thing about Stephen Colbert—and I think people see this—is he really does love America” and is trying to cure democracy by purging the poison in the system, Dominick told TAC. While Hollywood activists like Brad Pitt and George Clooney take the traditional route with safe causes like New Orleans reconstruction, AIDS, and African famine, Colbert attacks the heart of the matter like an antibody, saying and doing things that sets the establishment’s teeth on edge.
Colbert is “a comedian with a keen ethical compass who plays a blowhard with no ethical compass and hopes the audience gets the difference,” wrote Christopher Borelli in the Chicago Tribune. Colbert’s Catholic faith, talked about openly in rare out-of-character interviews, likely grounds the moral center of this outwardly cynical act. Since 2007, he’s used the “bump” to raise some $3.5 million in mostly modest viewer donations for charitable causes like assisting wounded veterans, the Tribune reported in July.
The organizers of the tar sand pipeline protest probably couldn’t say the same about Daryl Hannah, nor could the teachers’ unions lavish equal praise on Matt Damon, who spoke at their march on Washington in July.
“Not only is it true that [Hollywood actors] no longer have the influence of activists, but they no longer have much influence at the box office, either,” said Dominick, who suggested the era of the Hollywood megaphone—political or otherwise—was dying a slow death. But Colbert has only just begun.
“At this point now there is no stopping Colbert,” said Dominick. “He has a following and it’s crazy.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and a columnist for Antiwar.com.