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Why Stephen Colbert Is My Hero—5/3/2006 1:18:00 AM

by Bob Kruger

Last night, I visited Lucius Shepard's Night Shade Books forum and followed a link posted by Marc Laidlaw to a site of TV video clips, poeTV. He'd called out a neat little spoof on hospital horror like Lars von Trier's The Kingdom (http://www.poetv.com/video.php?vid=1358, if you're interested), but what really got my attention was another file, a clip of Stephen Colbert's performance at the April 29 White House Press Correspondents' Dinner. At first, I thought it had to be bogus but quickly verified it through Google. Today, Salon wrote a feature on his routine, NPR's Christopher Lydon dedicated his Open Source talk show to it, and a site launched to showcase the piece has already garnered 41K thank-you notes and counting. Since the video on the thank-you site is superior, I recommend going there: http://thankyoustephencolbert.org

Colbert's performance strikes me as admirably brave and exceedingly clever. I've read some commentary suggesting that it didn't take any guts to do what he did because it's not like the administration will have him shot and charge his family for the bullets like, say, the Chinese might under similar circumstances, but that argument's a straw man. You don't have to be suicidal to be brave. Colbert took a huge risk. If he'd flinched, he would have blown an opportunity to channel the outrage of millions of people into the face of the most powerful man in the world, looking not only silly but presumptuous to both liberals and conservatives. Not many performers could have held up well to the pressure of the silence in that room and the president's tight, seething regard, but he did.

Many pundits have noted his effective use of irony, but only a few have even touched on what I consider the essential context of that irony: As the president reminds us over and over again, we're at war! Yet how did Bush invite us to engage with that fact, just days after the Twin Towers fell and the passengers of flight 93 saved the White House at the cost of their lives? "Go about your business." Buy stuff, go on vacation. Be good consumers, because that'll be an affront to these Jihadist cavemen who detest our way of life and "hate freedom" (as if the best exercise and evidence of freedom is to act like an entitled, silver-spoon-sucking jackass). Some Americans opted instead to join the military and risk their lives. Notwithstanding the horrible support they got from the administration, who drove us unprepared into the Iraq war and then fueled the budding insurgency there by dismissing the entire Iraqi army on the assumption that hired killers out of work would be safer than killers who at least knew where their paychecks were coming from — notwithstanding this gross mismanagement by their superiors, the soldiers have largely earned our honor and praise, but at what horrible cost. How do you communicate the gravity of this to George Bush? Not with sober language befitting wartime and sacrifice but a shopping-mall photo-op, mugging-and-pulpit-thumping-in-the-face-of-terrorists rant, just like the fare served up for entertainment by Fox News. Serious shit's going down, but let's not be serious. Or thoughtful. Let's act like you, Mr. President. That's Colbert's ironic message. And no comedian during "wartime" — as if a perpetual war against Terror, a human emotion, could have a duration — has dared to speak such spot-on ironic truth in the face of power. Could you imagine this act in the face of an LBJ or Richard Nixon? Could you even imagine it working on those guys? I can't, because this was a performance perfectly wedded to the venue, the president, and the current surreal media atmosphere.

Oh, yeah, and Stephen Colbert played Dungeons & Dragons through high school.

This guy's my hero.