Satire is an art form. It entails the puncturing of pomposity with wit and humor.
One of the best at political satire was an early 20th-century columnist, H. L. Mencken, who said, “Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.” He also wrote, “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
And when you satirize Washington politics, it takes craft, verve, and chutzpah, as Trevor Noah demonstrated in style at this year’s White House Correspondents Association dinner. It was held for the first time since 2019 and the first time in five years with a president in attendance. The dinner is an affair that recognizes journalism and provides a platform for humor. The tradition dates back generations.
In 1944 Bob Hope was a comedian for dinner. And he ripped off a few choice remarks, reprised courtesy of historian Michael Beschloss.
“I don’t know if the government is taxed or not, but you know the dollar Washington threw across the Potomac. Well, I saw [Secretary of the Treasury] Morgenthau on his hands and knees looking for it.”
“There is a lot of gold braid in this town. I saw one general with so much gold braid he looked like Fort Knox with legs.”
“They are busy sending out tax forms now. You know that a tax form is. That is the government’s version of ‘Truth or Consequences.’”
What’s funny today
Today, in our time of polarity, every word can be misconstructed, sometimes purposefully, to make the “other side” look bad. It was a topic that Trevor Noah satirized himself, and while he skews mainly to the left, he did not spare them from his barbs.
here is a brief samples.
“You guys [in the media] spent the last two years telling everyone about the importance of wearing masks and avoiding large, indoor gatherings. Then the second someone offers you a free dinner, you all turn into Joe Roganhuh?
“This is the golden era of conspiracy theories, whether it’s the right-wing believing Trump can still win the 2020 election or the left believing Joe Biden can still win the 2024 election.
“I think everyone will agree that it’s actually nice to once again have a president who’s not afraid to come to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and hear jokes about himself… If [the president] didn’t come, I totally would have understood because these people have been so hard on you… Ever since you’ve come into office, things are really looking up. You know, gas is up, rent is up, food is up, everything.”
power of humor
Humor is precious, particularly in times of crisis. It reminds us that there is still time for comedy as ugly as things are. Not only time for it, but the necessity for it. Humor keeps us sane in times of turmoil. Polarity funds the political engines, but it also makes grist for political humorists.
Reactions of those being lampooned say much about their character. For example, those who take quick offense and lash out may lack composure. By contrast, those who can laugh at themselves demonstrate humility and self-confidence.
Satirizing the powerful may bruise an ego, but it does little harm. And does so for the greater good. It reminds us that in a democracy, there is room for levity. And there is also room for free speech.
Bottom line serious
President Joe Biden said at this dinner, “The free press is not the enemy of the people. Far from it. At your best, you’re guardians of the truth.” He then noted the example of journalists who have died covering the war in Ukraine.
Trevor Noah’s closing comment was fitting, especially since it came from a biracial man born into apartheid South Africa. He knows that freedom is not free better than most in the room. It requires men and women of good intention to right for the rights of all. “I stood here tonight,” said Noah with a smile, “and I made fun of the president of the United States, and I’m going to be fine.”
Laughter thrives in a democracy.