The President of Hollywood

Conan O'Brien takes on the role of Press Secretary at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

12647794-essayThere was a time when the artistic community felt an obligation to speak truth to power. It was called the Bush years. Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner back in 2006, and proceeded to blast President George W. Bush repeatedly, suggesting that “reality has a well-known liberal bias,” that Bush was responsible for “the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world,” and that the administration was “rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!” For such quips, the media quickly labeled him a hero; his media admirers actually blasted other media members for not giving him enough plaudits. Washington Post columnist Dan Froomkin slammed what he called the “Colbert Blackout,” referring to the media’s non-coverage of Colbert’s remarks. Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism professor Todd Gitlin called the performance “absolutely devastating.” New York magazine called it “brilliant.” New York Times columnist Frank Rich called it a “defining moment” in the 2006 midterm elections.

Now, however, Barack Obama is president. And that means that no one will have the gall to either pan his performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner or make jokes about his performance as president. The left got Stephen Colbert during the Bush years. The right got Conan O’Brien planting a sloppy kiss on Obama’s posterior last weekend.

Never mind that Obama left himself wide open for some kill shots. The overweeningly arrogant president opened by hopping onstage to DJ Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win,” then celebrated himself from the first word: “How do you like my new entrance music? Rush Limbaugh warned you about this – second term, baby.” He added, “Actually, my advisors were a little worried about the new rap entrance music. They are a little more traditional. They suggested that I should start with some jokes at my own expense, just take myself down a peg.  I was like, guys, after four and a half years, how many pegs are there left?” Then he attacked the media: “The fact is I really do respect the press.  I recognize that the press and I have different jobs to do. My job is to be President; your job is to keep me humble.  Frankly, I think I’m doing my job better.”

So naturally, when Conan got his shot, he promptly pulled his punches.

“It’s no surprise Speaker [John] Boehner isn’t here tonight,” he joked, noting that Boehner and Obama don’t get along. “It’s kinda like a blind date between Anderson Cooper and Rachel Maddow. In theory, they understand each others’ positions, but deep down, you know nothing’s ever going to happen.” He blasted Bob Woodward, the famed journalist who had the temerity to question the White House’s bully tactics: “Earlier the waiter asked if he wanted regular or decaf. And he said, ‘Stop threatening me.’” O’Brien’s hardest-hitting joke directed at the president was a looping eephus pitch: “The president is hard at work creating jobs.  Since he was first elected, the number of popes has doubled. The number of ‘Tonight Show’ hosts has tripled. Congratulations.”

And that was about as hard-hitting as Conan’s humor got. “It's been several months since you were reelected, sir, so I'm curious, why are you still sending everyone five emails a day asking for more money?" he jibed. “You won. Do you have a gambling problem we don't know about?"

There were weak jokes about Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood, Vice President Joe Biden, and Twitter. But nothing cutting about the president.

Perhaps that’s appropriate. But the press wouldn’t have lauded Colbert for doing the same with President Bush.

After the Correspondents’ Dinner, O’Brien stopped by the White House to stand behind the press secretary’s podium. That prompted the Deadline Hollywood team to remark, “Conan O’Brien Pretends To Be Obama Press Secretary for the Day.” But he’d already done that. After all, most of Hollywood is an Obama press office at this point.

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