Freud explained the joke as the release of tension, and wit as the bridging of contradictions. Bill Clinton obviously has lots of tension that needs releasing and he loves building bridges. But at the 84th annual White House Correspondents' Dinner on Saturday, all contradictions were left unbridged and there were no jokes skewering presidential misdemeanors to help relieve the tension. Absolutely none.
In recent years, the evening's entertainment has been provided by the Fourth Estate's designated presidential satirist of the moment. But this year the organizers chose Ray Romano, the amiable star of the CBS sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond," who started his act by admitting that he knows nothing about politics. When they learned that, Romano told the audience, they offered to double his fee. Not bad, but not much of a bridge-building tension release.
One place they are certainly loving Raymond at the moment is the White House. He avoided Clinton and controversy like a hunting dog evading skunks. The president's speech was the apotheosis of White House damage-control tactics. Under the softly protective umbrella of so-called humor he defiantly stared down the assembled media elite and telegraphed his strategy for the next few months: He will apologize for everything -- from the quality of the free food in the White House press room to failing to discover Pluto until 1930 -- except his own conduct.
Clinton described "the Kabuki dance between the White House and the press" as "a cherished part of our history." "You can ask me anything you want," he told Helen Thomas, who was honored at the dinner. "But remember an even older tradition. I don't have to answer."
The press laughed, applauded and gave him a standing ovation. The strategy they have been enduring in reality is one they actually -- and oddly -- relished when it was presented in a satirical package. Perhaps indulging a collective masochistic streak, they enjoyed being treated with contempt.
Having sunk his barbs into the press, the president moved on to Congress. He reminded us that "there are barely 40 days left in the the 105th Congress. This is a Congress with nothing to do and no time to do it in." This was followed by the suggestion that Seinfeld should be replaced by congressional coverage on C-SPAN: "Now there's a show about nothing." The state of political satire must be very sick indeed if only the emperor can make jokes while the subjects express their relief that the court jester didn't give offense. The satirical edge used to cut in the other direction. But now we are left in a ghetto of standard-issue Vegas jokes disconnected from political conviction or even any particular point of view.
Political satire at its keenest has always been about speaking truth to power -- sometimes brutally, always wittily. The decline of the quality and thereby the useful effect of political invective is all too evident in the kind of abuse politicians heap on each other. In a recent moment of deep communion with the humor muses, Congressman Dan Burton (R-Ind.) called the president a "scumbag." Compare Burton's rhetoric with what Benjamin Disraeli said of William Gladstone: "If Mr. Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a calamity; if someone pulled him out, that would be a catastrophe."
At the White House Correspondents' Dinner, just about the only political reference that Romano could muster was a criticism of Burton's "cursing." It was as if the fawning multitude simply wanted to have a good time and be reassured that all is well. But real political satire is supposed to be about rage not delight -- about exposing hypocrisies, not endorsing them.
No matter how hard everyone tries to pretend otherwise, there are still a lot of creepy-crawlies lurking in the political undergrowth. And there were reminders of them on Saturday night. The president and the first lady were late because she had spent five hours that afternoon being deposed by Ken Starr. Paula Jones made an ill-advised appearance in the back of the room, but was the cynosure of all cameras. "Best friend" Vernon Jordan was not there reawakening speculation about what he had and had not spilled to the grand jury.
Emperors have always banned court jesters in times of crisis. But it is certainly a departure to have the media watchdogs do the banning for them.
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