Stephen Colbert, I Love You, But It's Enough

2007-10-22-Colbertforpres.bmpThe 2006 White House Correspondent's Dinner was something else, truly. "Truthiness" is now part of the lexicon because it captured something pervasive and insidious and antithetical to the "reality-based community," and just naming it made it easier to call out. The GreenScreen challenge — hilarious and fun, same as that business with the Hungarian bridge and Wikipedia and the elephants. Yes, your ice cream is waffly and delicious, stealing O'Reilly's microwave was hilarious, and we all know how I feel about WristStrong (hi, Jeff Berc!). There is no question that the show is terrific — funny, sure, but reliably sharp as hell, between "The Wørd" and the interviews and the segments. Sometimes it's goofy hilarity like getting a Florida congressman to admit to loving hookers and blow; sometimes it's devastating gotcha television like making Bill Kristol squirm over PNAC; sometimes it's just how he manages to shake great TV moments out of people like Jane Fonda or Barry Manilow or Henry Kissinger. All of it has combined to make Colbert — a funny, smart, and clearly fundamentally decent guy — an incredible force in pop culture and media.

But seriously? It so does not mean he should run for president.

It's a terrible idea on many different grounds. Comedically, it's an extreme gag and an unoriginal one at that — getting a bridge named after you in Hungary or branding a minor-league Ontario baseball team or whooshing a museum for yourself into existence or getting a red piece of plastic around Matt Lauer's wrist — those are all inherently way funnier than ye olde joke candidate. Really, if it's already been a Robin Williams movie — which tanked — then seriously, don't go there. Also, it threatens to get old soon — how much jokesterism on shows like "Meet The Press" before audiences (sorry, voters) grow weary? Sure, we see him every night in character, but it's a character reacting to different people and their different projects and different stories to boot; when the interviewer becomes the interviewee and he's got nothing new to offer, it's a different story. As much as I enjoy Stephen Colbert on his show — and readers of this column have probably figured out that I do — I found myself a bit exasperated by his bit on MTP (though I did appreciate Tim Russert's straight-man send-up of himself doing to book-quote "gotcha" - though he couldn't help giggling in the process, which broke the fourth wall in a way that undercut the exercise). Colbert's character is great in an interview for forcing people to defend their positions; in this case, it just added up to meaningless bluster. He doesn't want gay marriage because he only got married so he could taunt gay men? Weak the first time, unimaginable as a talking point over and over again. What has been so great about Colbert is how he uses the character to make the larger point, one which often translates into trenchant (and, let's face it, earnest) political commentary. This way, he's using the character to obfuscate instead of illuminate.

It's also a terrible idea politically — that is, for the political process. Now is the time for the fringe players to slip away. Bye-bye, Brownback, so long Kucinich (we predict) and Gravel (we hope). The race is tightening, stakes are getting higher, and the general feeling is that this is where things start to count. The distraction of a spoof candidate — even the ultimate spoof candidate — will just get in the way.

It's a good idea for his book, I'll give him that. But wow, that would sort of be a sell-out.

I don't think, as Jeff Bercovici does, that Colber should just stick to making jokes and stay in his little box — I thought the White House Correspondents Dinner material was as hilarious as it was cutting — he's already in the arena and was from his first show, when he loosed the word "truthiness" on the world. Probably he didn't know that he'd end up being such a truth-to-power speaker, or at least perceived so much as one. But, he is — that's the role he's carved out for himself and it's a good one, a smart one — ironically, much smarter than this traipse along the campaign trail looks to be. Maybe I want Colbert in a box as much as Bercovici does, I don't know. It's just where I think he'll do the most good. Is it old-fashioned, in the presidential race, to want that?

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