Friday, July 1, 2011

Stephen Colbert Granted a Super PAC by the FEC, Satire Abounds

stephen-colbert-300x300There’s more than one Stephen Colbert. One is a real human being. The other is a caricature of other real human beings (Bill O’Reilly, etc.) played by the actual human being on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report.

It’s easy to lose track of which one’s which.

Both were born in South Carolina. Both spent their teenage years playing Dungeons & Dragons. Both hold honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degrees from Knox College (though it may be more accurate to say they both hold the same honorary degree). Both prefer the faux-French version of their last name (/klˈbɛər/) to the actual Irish pronunciation (/klbərt/).

One is a comedian, political satirist, and aspiring musical theatre star. The other is a pundit, journalist, and fearer of bears. One performed extensively with Chicago’s improv troupe Second City. The other performed at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where he cracked wise about the Bush administration while standing amidst – who else? – the Bush administration.

That wasn’t the only time the caricature Stephen Colbert poked his nose into (or jammed his foot up the rear of) reality. Just yesterday, the Federal Election Commission granted the latter permission to form a Super PAC capable of raising unlimited campaign funds for whatever/whomever Colbert sees fit.

And this is just the latest episode in Colbert’s quest to satirize politics and bureaucracy with his mere parodical presence.

A Presidential Hopeful

On the tour for his 2007 book I Am America (And So Can You), Colbert dropped hints during various media appearances that he might run for president. He even outlined his plans and reasons on Larry King Live. Just look at this transcript from the October 14 interview:

“COLBERT: …I think maybe there's something I could offer the campaign on a state by...
KING: What part...
COLBERT: ...state basis. I'm not saying I would target -- I would target a state individually and...
KING: To see how you would do?
COLBERT: Just a little test run.
KING: And what state?
COLBERT: But I've made no decision, Larry.
KING: What state?
KING: What state?
COLBERT: Well, I mean, I'm a native of South Carolina. That's -- it seems like a natural place to start.
KING: What party?
COLBERT: A favorite son campaign.
Excuse me?
KING: What party?
COLBERT: Oh, I'm an Independent, so I'd probably run in both parties.”

And that’s exactly what Colbert did. Two days after the Larry King interview, Colbert formerly announced his plans to run for president. He attempted to get his name on ballots in both primaries, but the non-refundable $35,000 fee required by the Republican Party proved too steep a price. He then ponied up the more manageable $2,500 needed for Democratic candidacy.

Unfortunately Colbert’s name never came before the voters. A day after he filed his bid, the South Carolina Democratic Party executive council voted 13-3 to reject Colbert’s application. The party doubted the seriousness of Colbert’s campaign (it was sponsored by Dorito’s, after all). Council member Waring Howe Jr. told CNN (via Politico) that Colbert would only be allowed on the ballot “over his dead body.”

Not everyone took the joke so poorly. Then-candidate Barack Obama poked fun at Colbert’s native son campaign by doubting his South Carolinian authenticity: “I can't picture Stephen eating grits, but who knows?” Then-Republican-hopeful John McCain thought Colbert would make the Republican debates “livelier.” Oh, if only that had happened.

A Congressional Character

stephen-colbert-congressIn September 2010, Stephen Colbert (the caricature, not the man who writes for and plays the character he calls a “well-intentioned, poorly informed high-status idiot”) testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Security. Colbert was invited by Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren after participating in the United Farm Workers’ “Take Our Jobs” program, which raises awareness for the plight of migrant workers while simultaneously offering work to unemployed Americans.

Colbert had spent a day working with farm workers in upstate New York and was called upon to recount his experiences. Before his oral testimony, he was asked to leave by Democratic committee member John Conyers but said at the behest of Rep. Lofgren (Conyers later sent Colbert a letter thanking him for his testimony).

Again, the fear was that by bringing his character before Congress, Colbert would be mocking Congress, just as his presidential bid took some digs at campaign machinery. Though he did crack wise before the committee, Colbert’s written testimony offered no such sarcasm. He had been invited by UNF president Arturo S. Rodriguez to participate in “Take Our Jobs,” Rep. Lofgren had asked him to come before Congress, and he was not going to deliver an insincere message. He wrote:

“They say that you truly know a man after you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, and while I have
nowhere near the hardships of these struggling immigrants, I have been granted a sliver of

There is a joke to be had in the idea of a television personality subjecting his fictionalized self to manual labor for the benefit of migrant workers. It’s not a laugh-out-loud joke. It’s a wince-because-you-know-it’s-true-but-don’t-know-why-a-comedian-is-the-one-to-bring-it-to-Congress joke.

A Super PAC Man

Colbert’s political action committee (PAC) is another example of media satire scooping the actual media. The words “campaign finance reform” are not new to me. I’ve been hearing them as part of Saturday Night Live skits for years – it’s usually the crux of a joke about boring presidential debates. But I know little more than that. Unless it’s an out-and-out scandal, the news tends to avoid it because people would rather watch Everybody Loves Raymond reruns than hear a political science/economics lecture on the eleven o’clock news.

By injecting his ridiculous persona into the process directly, Colbert could provide the type of first-hand reporting about campaign finance issues that traditional media eschews. He’s been obsessed with the notion of “Corporations as Citizens” ever since Citizens United v. FEC went before the Supreme Court. The 5-4 Court ruling held that corporate funding for independent political broadcasts in elections couldn’t be restricted, thanks to the First Amendment.


Colbert’s Super PAC (which you can donate to here) draws directly upon Colbert’s relationship with Comedy Central parent company Viacom and the rights it has to cover his PAC’s actions. The FEC ruled 5-1 to allow Colbert a media exemption, meaning he can use his show as a platform to promote the Colbert Super PAC’s activities without having to disclose the airtime or Viacom-run commercials as in-kind donations from Viacom.

No one even knows what Colbert will do with the money his PAC will raise. But that’s not the point. It’s the frantic red highlighting of governmental loopholes that matters. If Colbert can get an exemption for The Colbert Report and Viacom, what’s to stop Sarah Palin’s coworkers over at Fox News, or Palin herself, from doing the same? The bottomless pockets and nondisclosures afforded to Super PAC’s muddy up a system that’s already cloudy with posturing and shady transactions.

Colbert’s presidential bid raised questions about how a media-backed personality enters the political world. Had Donald Trump continued his mop-topped shamble toward the White House, those questions surely would have resurfaced. Colbert’s Congressional appearance begs a question repeatedly asked by The Daily Show’s John Stewart: why are comedians the only ones covering some of this stuff?

The Colbert Super PAC combines both of those aims into a laser-sharp satire of the monster that is corporate political influence. “The FEC made its ruling, and I’m sorry to say, we won!” Colbert told the crowd outside the FEC’s headquarters before he started accepting donations with a portable credit card machine. I, for one, have yet to donate. But I did sign up for the mailing list.