Last Saturday the Washington glitterati gathered at the Washington Hilton for what has become a major political event; the White House Correspondent’s Dinner. The draw has over the years become the president doing a stand-up bit followed by a professional comedian roasting more or less everybody in the room. This year’s invited host was Cecily Strong, a Saturday Night Live cast member known for playing The Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With. Strong, only the second female to host in the last 20 years, did not go soft on those attending, pun intended. In twenty minutes she made sure to joke both left and right. My personal favorite was when she went after Obama: commenting on criticism that Senator Elizabeth Warren is “too idealistic and her proposed policies are too liberal,” she told people to look at President Obama “people thought the same about him and he didn’t end up doing any of that stuff.” Obama’s jokes also hit home, especially his jab at Hillary Clinton: “I have one friend, just a few weeks ago she was making millions of dollars a year and she’s now living out of a van in Iowa”. Indeed, the White House Correspondent’s Dinner has become something of a comedic highlight of the year for those interested in politics, giving it the nickname “Nerd Prom”.
The modern classic of the annual dinners is from 2006 when Stephen Colbert appeared as his signature parody of a conservative media pundit and brutally criticized George W. Bush and the media’s failure to confront his administration. Among the zingers was when he tried to reassure Bush not to pay attention to approval ratings; “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”. Reports after the dinner claimed that Bush was furious over Colbert’s jokes and especially conservative media pundits agreed that Colbert had gone too far. However, seeing the comedian take on the president as close to mano a mano as you can get is something the audience longs for. In medieval times it was said that the only one who could speak the truth without fear of repercussions was the court jester. Today the court jester is often invisible, even if Jon Stewart is still on the air a couple of months, Larry Wilmore has done an excellent job with the former Colbert Report, and cartoonists like Ann Telnaes of the Washington Post is fighting the good fight. At the White House Correspondent’s Dinner the court jester speaking truth to power should be the main attraction.
The scene is a hospital room where Luke Dunphy, at age 14 the youngest of the Dunphy children, is being treated for an allergic reaction. His young cousin looks at the IV drop hanging by his bed and asks what it does. Without missing a beat Luke replies: ”I don’t know but thanks to Obama you’re paying for it”. This scene from an episode of the popular sitcom Modern Family, which aired the day after Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term in the White House in 2012, was greeted with cheer among conservatives. Several conservative bloggers and news outlets commented on how Modern Family ”mocked” the president’s signature health care reform, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act from 2010. The conservative website RedAlertPolitics expanded, writing: “even liberal Hollywood writers can’t escape the reality that is the expensive repercussions from Obamacare”. Others took to social media, within days several clips of the scene had been uploaded to YouTube and comments written on Twitter.
Commentators connected the joke to earlier reports of advertising plans in connection with the roll out of the online marketplace for the medical coverage in California. The New York Times had reported that suggestions from the Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide agency included having prime-time television shows, explicitly naming Modern Family and Grey’s Anatomy, incorporate the health care law into their storylines. The news of the plan was initially met with skepticism among conservative news outlets, criticizing viewers being “force-fed pro-Obamacare propaganda”. Following the Modern Family episode with the comment on the health care law these same voices gleefully saw it as a backlash towards the attempted marketing campaign.
Back in January, local businessman Marty Jakosa thought that along with the honor of being chosen to MC the 45th the Turlock Chamber’s 45th annual “Best of Turlock” dinner came the right to tell an off-color—even conceivably treasonous—joke about our President.
The joke was about Obama following in the footsteps of past presidents like Washington and Jefferson, and concluded with, “How about you be like Abe Lincoln and go to a play?”
Apparently, somebody with some influence said something to change Jakosa’s opinion, because not too much later, he effusively apologized, saying he was “truly, truly sorry,” and had “exercised extremely poor judgement,” adding, “I would never purposely disrespect the office of the President of the United States.”
Except that he did. And since “never” includes things that happened in the past, one can only conclude he was lying. And you couldn’t argue that his intentions weren’t purposeful, either, since in response to audience moans and boos, he felt compelled to add, “That’s a cute joke.” As in, ‘Come on, you oversensitive nits, that was a cute joke and you know it.’
According to Wikipedia, the prototype for 18 USC § 871, Threats Against the President, was the British Treason Act 1351, an act that made it a crime to “compass or imagine” the King’s death. More relevantly, convictions under 18 USC § 871 have been sustained for simply declaring “President Wilson ought to be killed,” and for displaying posters calling for the hanging of President Roosevelt. “The US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that a threat was knowingly made if the maker comprehended the meaning of the words uttered by him.”
I suppose one could argue Jakosa in fact didn’t comprehend the actual meaning of his joke, that perhaps he felt Obama just needs more culture in his life. At least this would help explain why he thought the joke was cute to begin with.
Then again, According to the US Attorney’s Manual, “Of the individuals who come to the Secret Service’s attention as creating a possible danger to one of their protectees, approximately 75 percent are mentally ill.” Given Jakosa’s assertion the joke is “cute” in the face of a offended audience, I’d say deteriorating mental health is also a likely possibility.
But here’s the thing. Just a few days ago, I caught an NPR story about some Republican (whose name I don’t remember) who’s defending Jakosa’s joke, saying (and I’m paraphrasing), “Well, back when Bush was President, right after Cheney shot his friend in the face, there were tons of jokes flying around from Democrats about how Bush should go hunting with Cheney. So that makes what Jakosa said okay.”
Only there weren’t.
First off, the hunting incident was so bat-shit crazy, even Bush himself couldn’t help joking about about it. While hosting the 2007 Stanley Cup winners at the White House, (at which the Anaheim Ducks were in attendance), he said, “Have you noticed a lot of security around here? It’s because the Vice President heard there were some ducks around.”
Solid joke, right? Score one for President Bush.
Not enough? How about this: at an executive order signing in October, 2007, Bush said he was going to do some fishing because, “The Secret Service won’t let me go hunting with [Cheney].”
In other words, Bush had opened the doors, providing clearance for any Cheney hunting jokes to come. However, if you look at those that did follow, you’ll see a fundamental difference between them and Jakosa’s. A difference Republicans either don’t appreciate or choose to ignore.
And I don’t know about you, but frankly, I can’t recall any specific Bush-Cheney jokes that paralleled this situation, nor could I find any online, Despite scouring the web for late-night talk show Cheney jokes, not one came close to implicating Bush as shooting victim or even implying he should become one.
For whatever reason, Argus Hamilton has amassed an exhaustive collection of Cheney hunting jokes, which can be found here: argushamilton.com/hunting.htm. Funny thing is, out of the fifty or so jokes listed, in every instance, the butt of the joke remains Cheney. This only makes sense, since Cheney is the one who shot his buddy in the face and then didn’t report the incident until the following day.
This joke from the Hamilton list is interesting, but the aim (sorry) of the joke is to avoid Cheney’s birdshot, not to get taken out by it, so really it’s just a variation on Bush’s own joke: “Dick Cheney’s job approval rating fell to twenty-nine percent in polls released Monday. However, President Bush stated categorically he’s standing behind the vice president. If he’s standing anywhere else the Secret Service makes him move.”
Out of all the jokes listed on Hamilton’s site, this one comes closest to Jakosa’s: “Dick Cheney got bad news Wednesday when the CBS News poll came out showing that the vice president’s approval rating has sunk to eighteen percent. There’s a way out of anything. To get his numbers up, he just invited President Bush to go hunting.”
However, even here, Cheney is the butt of the joke, the one inviting Bush to go hunting, suggesting the VP is the one who wants to shoot the President in order that he might take over his position. That’s very different than implying the general public would like to see Obama go the way of Lincoln.
In general, whenever I think about the ways Republicans respond to allegations of impropriety (whether it’s assassination jokes, or redefining rape) I can’t help but think of my four year old son. After being caught slamming his sister’s head into the wall, he’ll defend himself by shouting, “She poked me in the eye!” But when you sit them down and the truth comes out, we learn what had happened was she had accidentally brushed his face with a feather…after he gave her the feather.
The point is, let’s all tread lightly. Sometimes a joke isn’t just a joke. The assassination pump is already primed, people. According to Wikipedia, President George W. Bush received 3,000 threats a year, while Barack Obama received four times that many.
Maybe Jakosa should be like Abe Lincoln and Gettysburg the hell out of here.
Be sure to check out my Huffington Post blog – I’m with Mitt: Adventures in Amercia!
See this post for reactions to the Supreme Court’s legalization of marriage.
The reaction to President Obama’s changed stance on gay marriage is obviously big news. While I have argued before that proponents of gay marriage have a funnier argument than opponents, when it comes Obama’s decision the focus of the humor is less on the issue of gay marriage but on the politics of the situation. In the midst of an election season, Obama’s changing (evolving or flip-flopping? depends on who is drawing) view of gay marriage was bound to become a key instance in cartooning the major issues of the campaign.
We will be running some compilations of political cartoons as the campaign continues in order to examine how the visual representations of the candidates and the issues help shape the political conversation. As M. Thomas Inge noted in his essay “Politics and the American Sense of Humor,” “the editorial or political cartoon has been a mainstay in the media of this country from its very founding.”
The first thing one notices in looking at cartoons over the past few days is the rapid change in the situation once Obama came out of the closet in support of gay marriage (to use some popular metaphors). For instance, Mike Luckovich illustrated both the possible political “grenade” of the subject and one major theme of the fallout in two cartoons.
Mike Luckovich, the next day
many more below…