Episode one of season 3 of “House of Cards” finds Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) ensconced in the White House ready to focus on policy rather than killing the foes who had been obstacles to his rise to power.
In the video clip below, we see his chief henchman Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), who is recovering from the brain damage wrought by a brick to the head by one of those foes who escaped with her life, watching his boss on the Colbert Report. While one can never figure out what the real intention of screenwriter Beau Willimon was, it might be besides the point since the net effect is to demonstrate the ineffectuality of Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert satire, a toothless affair that hearkens back to the historical mission of court jesters in medieval times—namely to serve as lapdogs whose bark is worse than their bite. Wikipedia, quoting the Royal Shakespeare Company, states: “Regarded as pets or mascots, they served not simply to amuse but to criticise their master or mistress and their guests. Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558–1603) is said to have rebuked one of her fools for being insufficiently severe with her.”
In the video, Underwood is there to defend his new program that is called America Works—Amworks for short and hence the butt of Colbert’s joke about Amway. Now the interesting thing is how Colbert does not hone in on the real intent of Amworks, which is to slash “entitlements”, an agenda that Democratic Party presidents have been committed to since Carter was president. Colbert makes the axis of his satire Underwood’s unpopularity rather than the substance of a nominally liberal president. One can hardly imagine Colbert having the guts to drill Obama on cuts to food stamps if he can’t even put Frank Underwood on the spot. Furthermore, if someone as ruthless as Frank Underwood would go on the Colbert Report, how much of a threat could Colbert be? It was “House of Cards” stating, either intentionally or unintentionally, that such shows are just as inside-the-beltway as “Meet the Press”.
When a rightwing politician is on the Colbert show, Colbert’s satire has a bit more sting but only in the same way that Rachel Maddow exhibits. The idea is to lambaste the bad Republicans so that the Democrats can go on about the business of enacting policies that are “good for America”.
It makes perfect sense that Colbert is David Letterman’s eventual replacement. The Letterman show is a place where politicians can be gently kidded. The show will certainly give Colbert a bigger audience than he ever had on cable TV but to what effect? Did the man ever have any serious commitment to social change? That is open to question.
Even when Colbert supposedly went for the jugular, as was supposedly the case in his hosting the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in 2006, there was not much evidence that President Bush would find some reason to do to him what Vladimir Putin might have done to gadfly Boris Nemtsov, who was shot 7 times yesterday near the Kremlin. Here’s how the NY Observer reported on Bush’s reaction to Colbert later on that evening:
Stephen Colbert was asked, just after the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on April 29, how the President and First Lady received his evening’s routine. He launched into an account of the pre-party they hosted before the dinner, the highlight of which was his opportunity to introduce one of his right-wing brothers to the President. The brother then turned to the Comedy Central star and said, “You’re the family martyr.”
Right, but how did Mr. Bush react, you know, after the performance? “Oh, he was very gracious,” Mr. Colbert said. He clasped a stranger’s elbow in a Bush impersonation and said, in a C.E.O.-style drawl, “Nice job.”
I recommend a look at Steve Almond’s article in the Baffler titled “The Jokes on You”. It is the most skillful analysis of how Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert function:
The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are not just parodies of news shows. They also include interview segments. And it is here that Stewart, at least occasionally, sheds his greasepaint and red rubber nose. With the help of his research department, he is even capable of exposing lightweight frauds such as Jim Cramer.
More often, though, his interviews are cozy affairs, promotional vehicles for whatever commodity his guest happens to be pimping. He’s not interested in visitors who might interrogate the hegemonic dogmas of corporate capitalism. On the contrary, his green room is often stocked with Fox News regulars. Neocon apologist Bill Kristol has appeared on the show a record eleven times since 2003. Mike Huckabee has visited seven times, Newt Gingrich, Chris Wallace, and Ed Gillespie five times, and so on and so forth on down the dismal demagogic food chain: Lou Dobbs, Ron Paul, Michael Steele, Juan Williams, Ralph Reed, Dick Armey. Stewart, who is nothing if not courteous, allows each of these con men to speak his piece. He pokes fun at the more obvious lines of bullshit. The audience chortles. Now for a message from our sponsors.
Colbert’s interviews are even more trivializing. While he occasionally welcomes figures from outside the corporate zoo, his brash persona demands that he interrupt and confound them. If they try to match wits with him, they get schooled. If they play it straight, they get steamrolled. The underlying dynamic of Colbert’s show, after all, is that he never loses an argument. The only acceptable forms of outrage reside in his smug denial of any narrative that questions American supremacy.
In this sense, Colbert the pundit can been seen as a postmodern incarnation of the country’s first comic archetype, the “Yankee” (a designation that was then a national, rather than regional, term). As described by Constance Rourke in her 1931 survey, American Humor: A Study of the National Character, the Yankee is a gangly figure, sly and uneducated, who specializes in tall tales and practical jokes. Unlike Stewart, whose humor clearly arises from the Jewish tradition of outsider social commentary, Colbert plays the consummate insider, a cartoon patriot suitable for export. But Colbert’s mock punditry reinforces a dismissive view of actual corporate demagogues. Bill “Papa Bear” O’Reilly and his ilk come off as laughable curmudgeons, best mocked rather than rebutted, even as they steer our common discourse away from sensible policy and toward toxic forms of grievance.
And Colbert’s own flag-fellating routine often bends toward unintended sincerity. His visit to Iraq in June 2009 amounted to a weeklong infomercial for the U.S. military. It kicked off with a segment in which black ops abduct Colbert from his makeup room and transport him to a TV stage set in Baghdad, which turns out to be one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. Colbert is a brilliant improvisational comedian, adept at puncturing the vanities of his persona in the same way Bob Hope once did. (Colbert even brandished a golf club for his opening monologue in Baghdad, an homage to Hope, a frequent USO entertainer.) Still, there’s something unsettling about seeing America’s recent legacy of extraordinary rendition mined for laughs.
Colbert’s first guest, General Ray Odierno, commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, was treated to questions such as, “What’s happening here that’s not being reported that you think people back home should know about?” The hulking general then gave the host a buzz cut, as a crowd of several hundred uniformed soldiers roared.
Colbert himself acknowledged his reverence for the troops in interviews leading up to his visit. (“Sometimes my character and I agree.”) So it wasn’t exactly shocking that the shows themselves were full of reflexive sanctification of the military. Soldiers, by Colbert’s reckoning, aren’t moral actors who choose to brandish weapons, but paragons of manly virtue whose sole function is to carry out their orders—in this case “bringing democracy” to a hellish Arab backwater. This is an utterly authoritarian mindset.