Opinion

Opinion

Commentary: Politics once was a laugh. It's not now.

Posted May 4, 2018 9:22 p.m. EDT

Once, about two decades ago, I got to wear a gorilla suit. That's got to be the pinnacle of any stage career, right? I was portraying Mario Cuomo, who was then the governor, in Albany's annual Legislative Correspondents Association show.

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The mayor of New York had called the governor "an 800-pound gorilla" who, you know, sits wherever he wants to sit. But on the night of the big show, the skit did not amuse the governor; he thought we were making fun of his appearance rather than his political clout. He also seemed annoyed that the gorilla governor appeared on a psychiatrist's couch.

Huh. And they say our current governor is thin-skinned? A piker by comparison to his Pop.

You often get these misunderstandings when humor is involved. What's funny to me may not be to thee.

Case in point: last weekend's White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. The tumult over the sometimes bawdy act of comic Michelle Wolf usually misses the fact that it scored a lot of laughs from the 2,500 or so people packed into the Washington Hilton ballroom that night, along with some groans. In the morning light, Wolf's skewering of President Donald Trump and his entourage drew bad reviews.

Trump wasn't there, though. Last year he became the first president to miss the WHCA dinner since Ronald Reagan (who phoned in the one year he missed, while recovering from being shot). Every other modern president has shown up and offered his own barbs aimed at the reporters. But, in Trump's defense, it would be hypocritical to feign good humor and share supper with those he has labeled "enemies of the people."

Mind you, Andrew Cuomo doesn't attend the LCA show, either. It's unclear why, since he at least pretends to like the press.

Back to Washington: Not all Wolf's jokes were at Trump's expense. She aimed at Democrats, Congress, Wall Street and the media (including an unforgettable imagined view of buttoned-down CNN anchor Jake Tapper having sex). "It is kind of crazy that the Trump campaign was in contact with Russia when the Hillary campaign wasn't even in contact with Michigan," she said.

And that's the beauty of political humor: It works when it hits the truth head-on. We've grown unaccustomed to that _ to truth, that is _ in the administration of a president who this week, by the count of the Washington Post's Fact-Checker blog, topped 3,000 untrue or misleading statements in 466 days in office.

Even so, was the Wolf act at the fancy dinner a step too far? You can't blame the White House and the Republicans in Congress for being unhappy about a comedy sketch pointedly reminding us that the president paid a porn star to keep quiet about their affair and boasted about forcefully grabbing women's genitals. True, Trump gave Wolf the material for her comedy, but even with truth on WHCA's side, political journalists harm their claim to independence and fairness when a show they book at a dinner they sponsor so aggressively belittles a president they cover.

In that context, it's clearly time for the WHCA to turn its dinner away from entertainment and back toward forceful advocacy for the First Amendment and journalism education. We need that now more than ever.

Maybe, in fact, the time is past for this sort of gathering all over the country. That notion makes me sad. I participated in 16 Legislative Correspondents Association shows in Albany _ the oldest press spoof in the country, coming up on its 118th show next week. I've attended white-tie Gridiron Dinners in Washington and black-tie Inner Circle shows in New York City and, last week, that now notorious WHCA event. They have been fun.

But we've come to a sobering moment in American journalism, and that may dictate a more sober relationship with the public officials we cover. At a time when so many Americans say that they can't trust the news media _ a notion this president eagerly exploits for his benefit (as he similarly assaults the integrity of our federal law enforcement and intelligence communities) _ these events risk harm to our truth-telling mission.

The events are too expensive, anyway. The Times Union used to buy a table of 10 seats at the Legislative Correspondents Association dinner, tickets that now go for $325 each. If we had an extra $3,250 now, I'd rather put it into bonuses for great reporting on state government and politics, rather than great jokes and skits on those topics.

Still, the notion that we're unable to poke fun publicly at our leaders without retribution sounds dangerously like countries that we used to say weren't like America. We're free here, right? We can speak out. We can even tell bad jokes and pretend the governor is a gorilla. Or we could, anyway, not too long ago.

Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union. Share your thoughts at http://timesunion.com/rex_smith.

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