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Take-No-Prisoners Comedy

For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

The White House Correspondents' Dinner is a yearly ritual attended by everybody who is anybody in Washington. Traditionally, someone with a gift for wit will stand up and poke gentle fun at the administration, and the president himself will deliver a speech in which he gamely admits that he is not altogether perfect.

This year the designated hitter was Stephen Colbert, the acid-tongued comic who pretends on Comedy Central to be a fawning conservative anchor firmly in the Fox News tradition.

But Colbert's take-no-prisoners act, in which many people feel he embarrassed Bush unnecessarily, has raised a storm of comment that has barely abated well over a week after the dinner took place.

Colbert went after Bush's intelligence (or lack of it), his domestic spying program, the failures of Katrina and the Iraq war, his awful poll numbers, in short, anything that could remind the tricked-out crowd in the banquet hall and a national TV audience that Bush's presidency has been a disaster. Nevertheless, Colbert said, full of irony, "I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world."

In Sunday's Chicago Sun Times, TV critic Doug Elfman said Colbert's routine was remarkably brazen.

"He joked that Bush's presidency is like the Hindenburg," Elfman wrote. "It was perhaps the first time in Bush's tenure that the president was forced to sit and listen to any American cite the litany of criminal and corruption allegations that have piled up against his administration."

In the Washington Post, Richard Cohen said Colbert just wasn't funny. In a column on Thursday, he wrote that Colbert "was not just a failure as a comedian, but rude."

"Rudeness means taking advantage of the other person's sense of decorum or tradition or civility that keeps that other person from striking back or, worse, rising in a huff and leaving. The other night, that person was George W. Bush."

Cohen's column created its own firestorm. In a second column this morning, he said he had gotten more than 4,000 e-mails, many of them lacerating him for his sympathetic stance toward Bush.

"Because I held such a view," Cohen said, "my attentive critics were convinced I had a political agenda. I was "George W. Bush's lap dog" If I did not like Colbert, I must like Bush. If I write for The Post, I must be a mainstream media warmonger."

Other columnists, like Les Payne in Newsday, thought Colbert was hilarious as well as courageous.

"First, let's stipulate that the Republicans at the dinner did not laugh because they were the butts of the jokes," Payne wrote for Sunday's paper. "Next, we have to accept that Colbert, as with his Comedy Central cohort Jon Stewart, has become something of a rival to television newscasters."

At the dinner, Colbert dismissed the White House press corps "as mere stenographers who take down fiction from the president and pass it off as facts." Maybe that's why many of the reporters weren't laughing.

But why were conservatives upset that a comedian would disrespect a sitting president? asked Chris Satullo in Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer. "This from the people who called Bill Clinton everything except... no, wait, they called him that, too... The old 'hostile liberal media' rant is beyond tired." Conservatives are taking the heat because they're running everything, Satullo said. They're the ones "racking up deficits, body counts, fiascoes and indictments."

Attacking impotent Democrats, he said, "is like torturing a blind tabby cat."

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.

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