Are Some Americans Too Powerful to Make Fun of?

In April 2013, Stephen Colbert interviewed former President William Jefferson Clinton. It would be difficult to imagine a more flattering interview, unless scripted by Clinton’s own press people (upon reflection — perhaps it was).

For those not familiar with The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert (masquerading as a right-wing political commentator) combines sardonic humor and detailed research, with biting political commentary, to produce excellent and informative entertainment. (Colbert’s show received two well-deserved Peabody awards.)

Former Congressman Anthony Weiner has recently been in Colbert’s sights. Weiner previously resigned from Congress because of his habit of sending suggestive photos of himself to random women — certainly weird, but not illegal. Weiner (to my knowledge) has never been accused of any other wrongdoing in his professional or personal life.

However, in April 2013, in response to reports that Weiner was again considering running for office, Colbert aired the segment shown below and entitled (I quote):

“Anthony Weiner’s Comeback — After withdrawing from public life to spend more time with his penis, ex-congressman Anthony Weiner is ready to stick it back in.”

[The Weiner segment starts at about 38 seconds into the clip]

Given the Clintons’ history and Colbert’s aggressive style of reporting and criticism, I expected the Clinton interview (or at least the surrounding material) to be entertaining, provocative and informative. I certainly was disappointed.

For those who’ve forgotten, here are a few highlights from a broad selection of entertaining moments during Clinton’s presidency, such as then President Clinton’s:

  • Being accused in The Wall Street JournalThe Guardian and other publications of having committed rape — Clinton’s attorney denied the charge,
  • As the grand finale before leaving the presidency — and without consulting the relevant prosecutors — pardoning a convicted felon and fugitive from justice (whose family, coincidentally, made donations amounting to seven figures to both Clinton’s Library/Foundation and his wife Hillary’s Senatorial campaign).

To add to this circus, Hillary Clinton tried to explain away the fuss about Bill’s shenanigans as nothing more than an anti-Clinton “vast right wing conspiracy” — which brings to mind (since both Clintons are lawyers) the old legal adage:

When the law is on your side, argue the law.
When the facts are on your side, argue the facts.
When neither the facts nor the law are on your side, make an ad hominem attack.

More recently, while Hillary Clinton was a U.S. Senator and subsequently Secretary of State, Bill Clinton received millions of dollars in consulting and speaking fees, and contributions to his Library/Foundation — arising from business dealings in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kazakhstan and other countries not ranked highly for transparency or good governance.

Clinton repeatedly informed us during the Colbert interview that he currently dedicates himself to philanthropy and saving the world. If saving the world includes eradicating poverty in one’s own family, Bill Clinton’s truly been successful. The Clintons’ net worth at the end of Bill’s presidency was negligible; but it’s since blossomed into a net worth of around $40 million. This is particularly noteworthy when you realize that, nominally, the Clintons spent this entire period committed to public service.

I’m not a comic genius, and haven’t won any Peabody Awards, but just asking Bill Clinton about any of the above would’ve been informative and entertaining.

With the amount of great material available, and Colbert’s penchant for deflating the hypocritical and pompous, what did America’s king of satirical news raise during the Clinton interview? Colbert prodded him to join Twitter. Oh, and gave openings for Clinton to tell us what a really great guy Clinton is. I’m not exaggerating — watch the video of the Clinton interview shown below and entitled:

Colbert Galactic Initiative — Bill Clinton Part 1 President Bill Clinton explains why he doesn’t call the Clinton Global Initiative the Clinton American Initiative

(And, you can find Part 2 of the interview here and Part 3 of the interview here. )

In the humorous spirit of The Colbert Report, let’s query why Clinton would be treated so gently (when Colbert’s skewered Weiner and others with far less serious transgressions):

Does Clinton have pictures of Colbert doing something really odd with a household pet? Were Colbert’s writers on vacation?

Or are the Clintons simply too powerful for Colbert to “speak truth to power”? Because if prominent satirists are now afraid to make fun of powerful politicians, our American Republic is in trouble, and it’s no laughing matter.

But Anthony Weiner, don’t give up hope. If someday you become powerful enough, Colbert might overlook your failings too.

Steven Strauss is an adjunct lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Immediately prior to Harvard, he was founding Managing Director of the Center for Economic Transformation at the New York City Economic Development Corporation. Steven was one of the NYC leads for Applied Sciences NYC (Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to build several new engineering and innovation centers in NYC), NYC BigApps and many other initiatives to foster job growth, innovation and entrepreneurship. In 2010, Steven was selected as a member of the Silicon Alley 100 in NYC. He has a Ph.D. in Management from Yale University, and over 20 years’ private sector work experience. Geographically, Steven has worked in the U.S., Asia, Europe and the Middle East. You can follow him on Twitter at: @Steven_Strauss

3 Responses to "Are Some Americans Too Powerful to Make Fun of?"

  1. john135   May 21, 2013 at 8:51 am

    Tell me, out of Hollywood which conspiracy wing do they adhere to and promote??
    Is making money evil unless its from public service?? We should also ask Al Gore that ?.

  2. BJJ   May 21, 2013 at 9:01 am

    Everyone is fallible and leading public figures even more so. The measure of the person might have to be – did the good they do at least equal, if not outweigh, the not so good ? Clinton's public service was not impacted by his private sins except to the extent that the right wing tried to pillory him with them, diverting some of his resources.

  3. falk burger   May 21, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    For a good review of Slick Willie's character, try C. Hitchens' No One Left To Lie To. Steven Strauss highlights a problem long overdue for skewering. The Colbert/Clinton episode was a smarmy, oily, stick-it-back-in brown-nosing that left me gagging. Jon Stewart, too, has fallen into the idolatry trap from time to time; witness his fawning over the ghastly Madeleine Albright, though on the whole, his interviews are far more informative than Steven Colbert's, who may as well interview furniture. Why complicate the issue with another human to share the spotlight?