Commentary

How Barack Obama Killed an American Pastime

A lot of folks are upset over comedienne Wanda Sykes’s attack on Rush Limbaugh at Saturday’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. She called Rush a “traitor,” and said “I hope his kidneys fail.” Limbaugh aside, though, there were deeper problems with Sykes’s routine: it was the work of a courtier comic: embarrassingly sycophantic and unfunny.

Sykes began her routine by gushing to the president “you’re so likable,” and spent most of her time savaging Obama’s critics. For her grand finale, she took on people who complained that the president didn’t get a rescue dog: “Look, the man has to rescue a country that’s been abused by its previous owner. Let him have a fresh start with a dog.” Edgy stuff! Lenny Bruce would be proud.

A solitary flop at stand-up is no big deal, but Sykes isn’t the only comic who has trouble making fun of Barack Obama. Jon Stewart’s been a lot less amusing since his guy got elected.

Making fun of the president is a great American pastime, and it serves an essential democratic function.”

Tearing into Jim Cramer makes for good TV, but Stewart’s painful earnestness hardly provides the yuks. Comedian Jackie Mason — who summed up Bill Clinton with one razor-sharp line: “at least Nixon had the decency to twitch when he lied” — says that his fellow comics have fallen prey to “hero worship.”

That’s distressing: Making fun of the president is a great American pastime, and it serves an essential democratic function.

The annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner used to be an occasion for taking the bark off the president. That’s a useful ritual in a country that lacks an equivalent of “Question Time,” the parliamentary practice in which back-benchers get to hurl abuse at the PM.

Stephen Colbert did the honors at 2006’s dinner, in character as the Colbert Report’s moronic right-wing talk-show host. Colbert compared the Bush administration to the Hindenburg disaster and suggested that the president was an ignoramus who refused to seek accurate information because “reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

A former top administration aide who attended the dinner commented that Bush was furious: He had “that look [like] he’s ready to blow.”

Colbert’s performance was open, in-your-face disrespect for the presidency, and many people didn’t care for it. Many didn’t like it 10 years earlier at the White House Correspondents Dinner, when President Clinton had to sit uncomfortably while shock-jock Don Imus cracked jokes about Clinton’s marital infidelities — though as always, how offended one was largely depended on one’s party affiliation.

But there’s a lot to be said for openly mocking the president. When we ridicule our leaders, we remind them — and us — that they’re mere mortals. They weren’t put on earth to solve all our problems, and they shouldn’t be given the power to try.

We’ve had periods in our history when Americans thought it was inappropriate to ridicule presidents. In 1934, comedian Eddie Cantor felt compelled to ask FDR’s approval for a woefully tame radio bit where “Dr. Roosevelt” heals “Mrs. America.” Presidential abuses thrived in that culture of deference. After Vietnam and Watergate, we learned our lesson — at least for a time — and mocked our chief executives mercilessly.

For a year or so after 9/11, we had an unofficial moratorium on presidential ridicule. Time magazine proclaimed an end to the “age of irony,” late-night comics dropped the Bush jokes, and Slate suspended its “Bushisms” feature. The prevailing atmosphere of “hero worship” fed the growth of executive power and helped pave the way for a disastrous war.

It looks like we’re entering a similar phase of president-worship, and we don’t have the aftershock of 9/11 as an excuse this time. Let’s hope not, because if ever a president deserved to be deflated, surely it’s our current Savior-in-Chief, who promises to stop the oceans’ rise, “end the age of oil in our time,” and cure cancer in the teeth of a $1.8 trillion dollar deficit. Right about now, we could use a few laughs.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency.