The White House Correspondents Dinner is based on a celebration of the First Amendment and the freedom of speech or it’s an elitist gathering of out-of-touch hacks fawning over celebrities and lawmakers. Whatever the case might be, it always causes a stir – sometimes for the wrong reasons. As one might expect, poking fun at the president is the highlight of the night, especially when he attends.
This time, however, things have been different. For one thing, Donald Trump didn’t attend and chose instead to bask in reflected glory with die-hard supporters. Nothing out of the ordinary so far: after all, he didn’t attend last years dinner either. He sent staffers to replace though, preferring to let others suffer in his place, much like the generals of WWI. Sadly for them, it meant that the roast focused on them as much as Trump himself and that is where the second difference came in.
Michelle Wolf is best known for her work with the “Daily Show” which has never been a Trump-supporting place or a conservative bastion of comedy, but nevertheless, she was given the job of performing the ‘roast’ where any and all targets are free game. And oh boy, she went all out! But did she go too far?
Trump And The Staffers
Let’s just back up for a moment and make two things clear:
1) Michelle’s piece on Sander lasted 90 seconds in a speech that lasted 20 minutes.
2) She was commenting on her behavior and her habit of lying to the press, not her looks
With that established, it’s worth noting that Sanders is perhaps the most recognizable face in the President’s team and she was also sitting where the president usually sits at the table so of course, she was going to take some of the biggest hits! Given who Sanders works for and how she is constantly having to defend all of Trump’s decisions, how could Wolf ignore a target like that?
Trump got a lot of flak, of course, with Wolf commenting on the rumor that Trump is a failed businessman, joking about his non-attendance (“turns out the president of the United States is the one pussy you’re not allowed to grab.“) and pointing to his idea of giving teachers guns “so they can sell them for things they need – like supplies“.
Her attack on Mike Pence was much more controversial since she touched on abortion, a divisive subject at the best of times. While she was right in saying that Pence might turn out to be worse than Trump, she might have overstepped that particular mark. Whatever your beliefs might be, mentioning it in such an off-hand, off-color way is disgraceful. Pence might be a bad man to replace Trump, but Wolf would have been better off tackling his views on women with the #MeToo movement.
All in all, it was still standard stuff for the roast. The comments on Sanders could probably have been better worded, but again, the comments were on her behavior in the White House. It’s no surprise that such comments have been entirely lost by framing Wolf’s routine against Sanders as being about looks. Sean Spicer couldn’t have done it better.
In the Blue Corner
Wolf wasn’t uncritical of the opposition either. She gave the Democrats a lot of uncomfortable statements for them to squirm at, claiming that their local campaign strategy was so rubbish, they could still lose out in November. This is not what Democrats, looking to seize back control of Congress, really want to hear. While they may cheer at her attacks on Trump and his staff, her comments on their performance are most unwelcome. However, it can be argued that the biggest insult was that they were so boring, they didn’t really warrant much attention, comedy-wise. Ouch!
Wolf also made a swipe at Hilary Clinton, knocking her for the campaign strategy which is not unreasonable and is a criticism that many others have made. Of course, you can’t have a Clinton reference without Trump. Wolf went on to say “It is kind of crazy the Trump campaign was in contact with Russia when the Hillary campaign wasn’t even in contact with Michigan.”
Once again, the discussion over Sanders has ensured that this particular part of the speech was glossed over, but Democrats will remember it and they’ll be hoping that no one remembered that part.
You probably have to be a real cynic to believe this theory, but here goes: the reason why there is such a furor over the Sanders comments (by journalists, no less) is that Wolf annoyed the media by giving them a dose of the hard truth. The truth is, Trump is their fault too.
“He has helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster and now you are profiting from him” It’s a hard truth for the media to hear but it’s not too far from the truth. It can, therefore, be argued that media outrage is partly motivated by this reluctance to accept the truth.
Then again, the media didn’t exactly create Trump. Decades of declining industries due to globalization and an entrenchment of partisan behavior, coupled with a desire to buck the political status quo, went a long way to helping Trump get elected into office.
Michelle Wolf certainly took a bold step in criticizing the media at one of their favorite A-list events on the social calendar. It wasn’t quite up there with Trump’s own “Fake News” screech but it had the same general effect.
It’s hard to argue whether Michelle Wolf went too far because it partly depends on who you like and dislikes in politics, but for the most part, it’s important to remember the context. Wolf was asked to do the ‘roast’ and she did her job. Not much you can say about that.
The important thing to remember is that the best comedians are ones who push boundaries and cross lines. That’s what satire is all about and Wolf’s performance was satire at its best. In fact, much of the dinner featured many tongue-in-cheek moments, including a video message from Paul Ryan making fun of his retirement.
Yet Wolf’s speech seemed familiar: controversial and over-the-top, sprinkled with personal attacks and going down like a lead balloon with the aim of generating publicity for the person saying it. It worked! Now, everyone in America will know the name, Michelle Wolf along with every other nation who hears the same story. In fact, the speech is probably designed to emulate the man himself, giving us all a poignant reminder of the behavior and character of the unconventional president that we are now appearing to normalize.
Michelle Wolf will certainly be remembered for it which was probably the whole point of it. Well-performed satire is essentially a gateway to free publicity, especially when it’s painted as controversy. It was perhaps a bit too much, too soon and it pushed too hard in the wrong places, but viewed as a work of satire, it was brilliant. Next year’s act will have a tough time topping that.