Media touted Bush's routine at Correspondents' dinner, ignored Colbert's skewering

››› ››› SIMON MALOY & JOSH KALVEN

Following the White House Correspondents' dinner, numerous news outlets trumpeted President Bush's performance at the event, but entirely ignored the scathing routine delivered by the night's featured entertainer, Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert. In his act, Colbert mocked the White House's current woes, slammed a wide range of Bush administration policies, and lampooned the mainstream media.

Following the annual awards dinner of the White House Correspondents Association held on April 29, numerous news outlets trumpeted President Bush's performance at the event. But in turn, many outlets entirely ignored the scathing routine delivered by the night's featured entertainer, Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report. In his act, Colbert mocked the White House's current woes, slammed a wide range of Bush administration policies, and lampooned the mainstream media.

During his 20-minute routine at the April 29 dinner, Colbert appeared in character as the bombastic, Bush-supporting cable news host that he plays nightly on The Colbert Report. Colbert mimicked the administration's often over-the-top optimism, saying, "This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are re-arranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!" He touted the numerous problems currently plaguing the White House and advised Bush on how to handle each of them. On Bush's dismal poll numbers, Colbert commented, "But guys like us, we don't pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in 'reality.' And reality has a well-known liberal bias." Referring to the rising criticism of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Colbert said, "I've got a theory about how to handle these retired generals causing all this trouble: don't let them retire! Come on, we've got a stop-loss program; let's use it on these guys."

As Editor & Publisher further reported:

Colbert also made biting cracks about missing WMDs, "photo ops" on aircraft carriers and at hurricane disasters, melting glaciers and Vice President [Dick] Cheney shooting people in the face. He advised the crowd, "if anybody needs anything at their tables, speak slowly and clearly into your table numbers and somebody from the N.S.A. will be right over with a cocktail."

Observing that Bush sticks to his principles, he said, "When the president decides something on Monday, he still believes it on Wednesday -- no matter what happened Tuesday."

Colbert also fired on the Washington press corps. "I am appalled to be surrounded by the liberal media who are destroying this country," Colbert said, "except for Fox News. Fox believes in presenting both sides of the story -- the president's side and the vice president's side." He expressed approval of the media's repeated failure to hold the administration accountable: "Over the last five years, you people were so good -- over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out." Further, he urged the White House correspondents in attendance to "[w]rite that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know -- fiction!"

Colbert's performance was preceded by a routine in which Bush and presidential impersonator Steve Bridges stood side-by-side behind identical podiums and made light of Bush's rhetorical style, as well as mispronunciations and grammatical mistakes.

But in their subsequent coverage of the event, numerous news outlets focused only on Bush's light-hearted comedy, while omitting mention of Colbert's blistering performance. On the April 30 edition of ABC's This Week, host George Stephanopoulos played an excerpt of Bush's act and remarked that the dinner "gets more inventive every year." That same morning, on NBC's Sunday Today, co-host Lester Holt introduced clips of the Bush-Bridges routine by noting that the "relationship between the White House press corps and the president can be a contentious one, but last night it was all laughs." The footage of Bush's performance also aired on the April 30 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News.

On May 1, all three major networks played clips of Bush's routine on their morning shows, but ignored Colbert entirely. CNN's American Morning did the same.

Similarly, a May 1 New York Times article on the event -- "A New Set of Bush Twins Appear at Annual Correspondents' Dinner" -- by reporter Elisabeth Bumiller recounted Bush and Bridge's performance in detail and provided some background on how the routine was devised. The article reported, "With his approval ratings in the mid-30's and a White House beset by troubles, there is some evidence that Mr. Bush worked harder on his performance this year than in the past." But Bumiller omitted any mention of Colbert or the fact that he had highlighted the White House's current problems at the dinner.

Further, while C-SPAN broadcast the April 29 event live and aired the event in its entirety several times in the following 24 hours, the network also aired an abridged version of the dinner that featured only Bush's performance. Indeed, on April 30, C-SPAN broadcast a 25-minute segment (7:35 p.m. -- 8:00 p.m. ET), which featured approximately 10 minutes of footage of guests entering the event, followed by the full 15-minute Bush-Bridges routine.

These news outlets' failure to cover Colbert's lampooning of Bush stands in contrast to the media's coverage of a Correspondents' dinner during President Bill Clinton's first term. In 1996, radio host Don Imus was selected as the night's featured entertainer. During his act, Imus cast a harsh light on Clinton's problems at the time, including his supposed extramarital affairs, and raised questions concerning then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's financial dealings. But unlike much of the coverage of this year's event, news outlets such as the Times noted the uncomfortable response to Imus's barbs at the time:

  • A March 23, 1996, New York Times article reported that "the correspondents apparently got more than they bargained for when Mr. Imus made fun of President Clinton's supposed extramarital affairs and Hillary Clinton's legal problems -- with both the President and the First Lady sitting on the dais as he spoke."
  • A March 23, 1996, Los Angeles Times article reported, "Imus joked about Clinton's alleged extramarital affairs, the first lady's financial dealings and the homosexuality of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's half sister. The president was photographed grimacing at one of the lines.
  • The March 22, 1996, edition of the CBS Evening News noted that Imus had delivered "political and sexual punch lines aimed at the Clintons."
  • A March 23, 1996, Washington Post article noted that the dinner featured a "good-natured" performance by Clinton and Gingrich. "The evening began promisingly enough, with Clinton and Gingrich playfully clinking glasses in a toast before their good-natured mutual tweaking," the Post reported. The article then went on to report on Imus's routine: "With President and Hillary Rodham Clinton squirming in stony silence a few feet away on the dais at the Washington Hilton last night, radio shock jock Don Imus made jokes about Clinton's alleged extramarital affairs [and] his wife's alleged financial misdeeds."

Full video of Colbert's performance is available here (Part 1), here (Part 2) and here (Part 3).

From the April 30 edition of ABC's This Week:

STEPHANOPOULOS: And now a special edition of "The Sunday Funnies." President Bush and his mystery twin at last night's White House Correspondents' dinner.

[video clip]

BUSH: Members of the White House Correspondents Association, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

BRIDGES: Here I am. Here I am at another one of these dang press dinners. Could be home asleep, little Barney curled up at my feet. But, no, I've got to pretend I like being here.

BUSH: I'm absolutely delighted to be here, as is Laura.

BRIDGES: She's hot. Muy caliente.

BUSH: As you know, I always look forward to these dinners.

BRIDGES: It's just a bunch of media types, Hollywood liberals, Democrats like [Sen.] Joe Biden [D-DE]. Yeah, all the usual suspects. Speaking of suspects, where's the great white hunter?

BUSH: I'm sorry Vice President [Dick] Cheney couldn't be here tonight.

BRIDGES: I tell you, you reporters would go nuts if you knew the true story. He was as drunk as a skunk. On one beer. Light beer. Oh, people were ducking and diving for cover. I wish I could have been there. I saw him walking down the hallway the other day. I looked at him and said, "Don't shoot!"

[end video clip]

STEPHANOPOULOS: Gets more inventive every year. Thanks for sharing part of your Sunday with us. We'll see you next week.

From the April 30 edition of NBC's Sunday Today:

HOLT: The relationship between the White House press corps and the president can be a contentious one, but last night it was all laughs as President Bush had those attending the White House Correspondents' dinner doing a double take, literally. The president got a lesson in talking about nuclear weapons programs from an impersonator.

[video clip]

BUSH: So, I want to talk about some serious issues, such as --

BRIDGES: OK. Here it comes. Nuclear proliferation. Nuclear proliferation. Nuclear proliferation.

BUSH: Nukear proliberation.

BRIDGES: All right. All right. Maintain. Be cool. Let's give this a try. We must enhance noncompliance protocols, sanctioned not only at IAEA formal sessions, but through intercessional contact.

BUSH: We must enhance noncompliance protocols, sanctioned not only at E-I-E-I-O formal sessions, but through intersexual conduct.

[end video clip]

HOLT: Very funny stuff.

MELISSA STARK (co-host): So our -- our president has trouble with the English language. We know that.

HOLT: Well, apparently, he likes -- he likes to play fun at that sometimes. The president also had a chance to rib his number two, Vice President Dick Cheney. Watch this.

[video clip]

BUSH: I agree with the press that Dick was a little late reporting that hunting episode down in Texas. In fact, I didn't know a thing about it until I saw him on America's Most Wanted.

BRIDGES: Cheney, what a goofball! Shot the only trial lawyer in the country who's for me. I'll tell you, you reporters would go nuts if you knew the true story. He was a drunk as a skunk. On one beer. Lite beer. Oh, people were ducking and diving for cover. I wish I could have been there. I saw him walking down the hallway the other day. I looked at him and said, "Don't shoot!"

[end video clip]

STARK: If you can't have a good time, what's the point, right?

HOLT: Yeah. Tell me again the impersonator -- Bridges -- Steve Bridges is the impersonator's name. Very -- not only a great likeness, but he's got the --

STARK: Unbelievable.

HOLT: -- the chuckle down pat. But that's always a fun event, every year the White House Correspondents' dinner and --

STARK: Yeah. I went to one. It was great.

From the April 30 edition of NBC'S Nightly News:

JOHN SEIGENTHALER (host): We're going to end here tonight on a lighter note. A tradition that started when [former President] Calvin Coolidge attended the annual White House Correspondents' dinner. As is customary, the president uses the occasion to poke some fun at himself. Last night, President Bush brought along some help, impersonator Steve Bridges.

[video clip]

BUSH: Thank you, Mark. I'm absolutely delighted to be here, as is Laura.

BRIDGES: She's hot. Muy caliente.

BUSH: I want to talk about some serious issues, such as --

BRIDGES: OK. Here it comes. Nuclear proliferation. Nuclear proliferation. Nuclear proliferation.

BUSH: Nukear proliberation.

BRIDGES: All right. All right. Maintain. Be cool. Let's give this a try. We must enhance noncompliance protocols, sanctioned not only at IAEA formal sessions, but through intercessional contact.

BUSH: We must enhance noncompliance protocols, sanctioned not only at E-I-E-I-O formal sessions, but through intersexual conduct.

BRIDGES: Nailed it.

[end video clip]

SEIGENTHALER: Steve Bridges with President Bush at last night's White House Correspondents' dinner.

From the May 30 edition of NBC's Today:

MATT LAUER (co-host): Every year, our nation's presidents put their egos aside to poke a little fun at themselves at the White House Correspondents' dinner.

KATIE COURIC (co-host): And this weekend was no different. President Bush was seeing double with the help of presidential impersonator Steve Bridges. Take a look.

[video clip]

BUSH: Members of the White House Correspondents Association, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

BRIDGES: Here I am. Here I am at another one of these dang press dinners. Could be home asleep. ... But, no, I've got to pretend I like being here.

BUSH: I'm absolutely delighted to be here, as is Laura.

BRIDGES: She's hot. Muy caliente.

BUSH: You know it's good to see so many influential guests here tonight. Justice Scalia, Justice Alito.

BRIDGES: Speaking of suspects, where's the great white hunter?

BUSH: I am sorry Vice President Cheney couldn't be here tonight.

[end video clip]

LAUER: At least everybody has a good sense of humor about it.

COURIC: Yeah, sort of like the presidential version of pop-up videos.

LAUER: It's like Saturday Night Live comes to life.

From the May 1 edition of ABC's Good Morning America:

CHARLES GIBSON (co-host): Well, over the weekend, President Bush hosted the annual dinner for the White House press corps and the crowd wound up doing a double-take. Here he is with a presidential look-alike at the dinner. Now, this event is half stand-up, half roast. And this year, the president took a few swipes at himself. Here we are.

[video clip]

BUSH: You know it's good to see so many influential guests here tonight. Justice Scalia, Justice Alito.

BRIDGES: Hey, boys. Bet it feels good to be out from under those robes. Toga! Toga! Toga! Toga!

BUSH: I'm absolutely delighted to be here, as is Laura.

BRIDGES: She's hot. Muy caliente.

BUSH: I always look forward to these dinners.

BRIDGES: How come I can't have dinner with the 36 percent of people who like me. ... Where is the great white hunter?

BUSH: I am sorry Vice President Cheney couldn't be here tonight.

BRIDGES: Cheney, what a goofball. Shot the only trial lawyer in the country who's for me. ... Let's hit them with some rhetorical eloquence. Nuclear proliferation. Nuclear proliferation.

BUSH: Nukear proliberation.

[end video clip]

DIANE SAWYER (co-host): It is uncanny.

ROBIN ROBERTS (co-host): I know. Steve Bridges is the comedian. The laugh that he had down was so perfect.

GIBSON: That was Bridges on the right.

ROBERTS: Yeah, thanks a lot. Wasn't quite sure there for a minute.

SAWYER: Nukear.

ROBERTS: I like it.

From the May 1 edition of CBS' The Early Show:

RENE SYLER : And President Bush poked fun at himself at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner. He appeared side-by-side with impersonator Steve Bridges, who played the role of the president's inner voice. They joked about his mispronunciation of certain words.

[video clip]

BRIDGES: Nuclear proliferation. Nuclear proliferation.

BUSH: Nukear proliberation.

BRIDGES: IAEA formal sessions.

BUSH: E-I-E-I-O formal sessions.

BRIDGES: Through intersessional contact.

BUSH: Through intersexual conduct.

[end video clip]

SYLER: The president also said he is in good spirits because he survived the White House shake-up.

From the May 1 edition of CNN's American Morning:

MILES O'BRIEN (co-host): Pictures of the White House on this Morning. With rising gas prices and the war in Iraq, there's not a lot to laugh about inside that building, but President Bush was able to laugh at himself quite literally. At a fancy dinner for the White House press corps over the weekend, he poked fun at himself with the help of an alter ego, impersonator Steve Bridges.

[video clip]

BUSH: Members of the White House Correspondents Association, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

BRIDGES: Here I am.

BUSH: I'm absolutely delighted to be here. As is Laura.

BRIDGES: She's hot.

BUSH: As you know, I always look forward to these dinners.

BRIDGES: It's just a bunch of media types. Hollywood liberals. Democrats like Joe Biden. How come I can't have dinner with the 36 percent of the people who like me?

BUSH: It's good to see so many influential guests here tonight, Justice Scalia, Justice Alito.

BRIDGES: Yes, all the usual suspects. Speaking of suspects, where's the great white hunter?

BUSH: I am sorry Vice President Cheney couldn't be here tonight.

So, I want to talk about some serious issues, such as --

BRIDGES: OK. Here it comes. Nuclear proliferation. Nuclear proliferation. Nuclear proliferation.

BUSH: Nukear proliferation.

Ladies and gentlemen, that rugged good looking guy right there is Steve Bridges. And he's a fine talent. In fact, Steve did all my debates with Senator [John] Kerry [D-MA].

[end video clip]

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN (co-host): He's very good. I think Steve does a better president than the president himself.

ANDREW SERWER (CNN correspondent): I couldn't tell which one was which at first --

S. O'BRIEN: Really?

M. O'BRIEN: When I first looked at it, I was --

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, for a moment it was hard. That was pretty funny.

M. O'BRIEN: -- trying to figure out who it is. A very nice job. That was fun.

SERWER: It sure was.

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