Let's start with Time's head and subhead—
"President Obama Outshines Jimmy Kimmel at White House Press Correspondents' Dinner: Do we laugh at the president because he's funny or -- because he's the president and we have to? Here's your answer."
"At Saturday night’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Obama showed that yes, he really is that funny.
The President focused, not surprisingly, on the still-ripe-for-wisecracks Secret Service scandal, the upcoming election and how much has changed throughout his four years in office, all with a healthy dose of humility and self-deprecation. “Four years ago, I looked like this,” he said, gesturing to a photo of his fresh and sprightly self circa 2008. “Today, I look like this,” he said, as an image of his notably wearier (and grayer) self flashed on the screen. “And four years from now, I will look like this.” Cue photo of Morgan Freeman. Here are some of his other memorable quips:
On his relationship with Hillary Clinton:
“Four years ago, I was locked in a brutal primary battle with Hillary Clinton. Four years later, she won’t stop drunk-texting me from Cartagena.”
On news aggregation:
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t congratulate the Huffington Post on their Pulitzer Prize. You deserve it, Arianna. There’s no one else out there linking to the kinds of hard-hitting journalism that HuffPo is linking to every single day.”
Admittedly the last one got a hilariously pained "oooh" from the print media in the room, including the Denver Post table where I was sitting (they endorse none of the libertarian ranting to come, of course).
The rest? Oh, the president admits he looks older. Oh, someone pointed out Texts From Hillary as the hot meme of the moment (or several weeks ago)! The president is so aware of these things. (He's probably not aware of Texts from Drone, though. At least someone told him to stop joking about Predator Drones and the Jonas Brothers like he did in 2009.)
So why is it so jaw-droppingly wonderful that the president manages to have enough comic timing to get some of the jokes that he didn't write across? Why is it so exciting that it's like he's people? Look, he can even make policy jokes!
On a potential second term:
“In my first term, I sang Al Green; in my second term, I’m going with Young Jeezy. In my first term, we ended the war in Iraq; in my second term, I will win the war on Christmas. In my first term, we repealed the policy known as ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell;’ in my second term, we will replace it with a policy known as, ‘It’s Raining Men.’ In my first term, we passed health care reform; in my second term, I guess I’ll pass it again.”
Priceless. Never mind the Defense of Marriage Act still lingering and occasionally destroying families. And definitely never mind the War on Drugs, even though the idea of winning that should seem as absurd as winning the war on Christmas.
Here's the whole thing, if you're interested. Remember, mocking the stupidest critiques of your presidency is the height of edgy, self-deprecating humor.
But let's go back a bit. Let me slum it by playing FishbowlDC for a second, may the journalism gods forgive me. Here are some things I saw last evening.
At the ABC News pre-party I somehow found myself taking a picture of Diane Sawyer and openly gay, extremely genial GOP presidential candidate Fred Karger with the latter's camera at his request. I ran into, and briefly attended Karger's CPAC party, and the fact that I remembered his existence and talked to him above other people probably endeared me.
We chatted a bit about Rick Santorum, who was spotted by taller people in the room at that very party. Rick Santorum is, apparently, a very nice guy in person. Anticipating an evening of libertarian screaming inside my own head, I pressed Karger on politics by saying "I hate politics." We then discussed whether Santorum being a true believer would be better or worse. (At some point, dear commenters, Karger also pointed out a girl who was apparently Santorum's daughter and, well, I thought of all of you and smiled.)
Celebrities filed in. I saw the back of some brunette hair and a sparkly dress and elbowed Chuck Plunkett of The Denver Post saying, that's Barbara Walters, isn't it? I spent many an hour in my nerdy youth watching 20/20, but that was mainly for John Stossel's impassioned, libertarian requests that someone give him a break. I was reminded of how how shoddily ABC apparently treated Stossel during his years as the only libertarian there.
Eventually it was time to get started with fancy-dining and applauding. I was unmolested by the security, passing easily through the metal detectors and there were fewer olive-clad examples of the militarization of police than there are at any protest you've ever seen, but there were some, with German Shepherds on short leashes at the ready. Black-clad men with earpieces lurked.
The Post people and I found our table, tucked in a corner of the epic, golden ballroom. My name, I realized, was written down in the program. I was more than just a nameless "guest of" and I tried not to like that too much or hate it too much. I searched in vain for Attorney General Eric Holder's name, since he was supposedly going to sit at the Huffington Post's table. Not seeing his name, I resolved to make as many jokes about the other, secret list, as I could.
Before everything started, I wandered the room in hopes that I would find Greg Gutfeld of the libertarian-friendly Red Eye, since "hey, my colleagues go on your show sometimes and that show is pretty awesome" is an easier line than trying a cold-opening of "the government sure is terrible, isn't it?" in that crowd.
During my fruitless quest for Gutfeld I saw George Clooney, Kim Kardashian, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Kevin Spacey, and Bret Baier of Fox News hobnobbing with Newt and Callista Gingrich, and a million other people I probably knew and lots of journalists and guests paying much, shameless attention to all the celebrities. And then while I passed Sen. Rand Paul, looked back to maybe smile at him for at least trying to stop the damn PATRIOT Act and the NDAA, I almost bumped into Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security; Big Sister herself. This was after myriad, cranky jokes about who I should accidentally spill a drink on for liberty, Holder, Ray Kelly of the NYPD, or Napolitano. I had to trap an attack of sincerely hysterical laughter with my hand before it escaped into the ballroom.
So here's the point; I know it's taken much longer to get to than Hamilton Nolan over at Gawker, whose "Fuck the White House Press Correspondents' Dinner" blog post is pretty hard to argue with and maybe does say all that needs to be said about the dinner.
But the opulence doesn't offend me. The opportunity to awkwardly say "you're awesome!" to Aziz Ansari from Parks and Recreation doesn't offend me. Kim Kardashian really, really doesn't offend me. Journalists patting themselves on the back doesn't offend me much. Hell, it's only one night a year and maybe we should pay much more attention to the toothless White House Press corp and their daily inability to be as ruthless and watch-dogish as they should be. It's not that much worse just because they're better dressed than usual for one night.
Because it's the people who are more offended by Kim Kardashian than Ray Kelly who are the problem. Politics, somewhere along the line, became morally equal to celebrity. Morally superior, even. And so when they mix, it's not that celebrities diminish a highbrow event, it's that they blur the lines in a way that's dangerous to understanding. Nothing demonstrates that quite as perfectly as the ritual of the president playing comedian and comedians oh, so gently roasting the president.
Jimmy Kimmel, to his great credit, was at least a lot rougher on the president than most people expected. Nobody will ever pull another Stephen Colbert in 2006 because you have to assume someone was fired for that, and because, let's be honest, is there a comedian alive who would treat a Democrat the way Colbert treated Bush?
But Kimmel made jokes about "Fast and Furious" gunrunning and Eric Holder, as well as the recent Department of Justice crackdowns on marijuana. And that's half points at least, what with the toothlessness of previous Obama-"bashing" comedians like Seth Meyers and Jay Leno.
Maybe the bloom is off the rose a little for Obama if a comedian dared to go there, but the way the crowd howled at Obama's every half-witticism, it didn't feel like it. Listening to Obama speak in person is as infuriating as it is on television; worse, with journalists in hysterics and me looking dour and thinking this isn't funny.
But maybe Obama is funny. Maybe I can't tell.
Except that it doesn't matter if he's funny or not.
It's confusing to be there among all the glitter. Seeing famous people is fun. You've seen them in pictures and movies, you feel a moment of recognition, yes! I know you! So you want to stare and maybe take a picture and then you're part of all that bullshit. Whether it's Rahm Emanuel or Steven Spielberg, you're giving them what they want by looking and caring. But Spielberg never said "you never want to let a serious crisis go to waste" and was never in charge of a big, corrupt city with a nasty police department. At the White House Press Correspondents' Dinner, directors and mayors are just one and the same.
Even though certain breeds of celebrities want to be taken seriously and most politicians want to be admired, politics is power. It's not just a velvet rope, you can't come into this nightclub, and I have a disturbing influence on what your children think is cool type-power; it's life and death power. It's assassinations without oversight. It's imprisonment. It's that legalized, glamorized type of murder known as war.
The difference between politics and celebrity, the inherent dangers of the former and the banal harmlessness and occasional pleasures of the latter, shouldn't have to be explained; the White House Press Correspondents' Dinner, proves, if nothing else, that is still does. And that's the problem.
Reason on the White House Press Correspondents' Dinner.