National News

Michelle Wolf gave everyone what they deserved

Posted May 5, 2018 12:07 p.m. EDT

From all the indignant harrumphing, you would have thought comedian (and we use that word loosely) Michelle Wolf had been performing Saturday night before a group of cloistered nuns instead of the White House Correspondents' Association dinner.

To be sure, Wolf's 19-minute riff on Washington's power elite was a profanity-laced, vulgar tirade directed at President Donald Trump, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the broad swath of the nation's media outlets.

Some might rightfully view Wolf's F-bomb laden shtick as yet another tawdry example of the sorry decline of public discourse across the land. But it was also a grand moment highlighting the full flower of Washington hypocrisy.

The real problem here isn't that Wolf's brief moment in the spotlight was so offensive. Rather, Wolf, who is a contributor for the Daily Show With Trevor Noah on Comedy Central, deftly proved she simply is not very good at stand-up comedy.

A quick question framed in a manner Wolf might understand. Where was $#@*&^% Trevor Noah, when you really &^%$*&% needed him? Too subtle?

After her obscenity-filled act, Washington's chattering media classes went into chin-rubbing moral overdrive, which is a bit rich. These are, after all, supposed to be hard-boiled, Johnny Deadline, "Get me rewrite, Baby!" journalists to whom scatological, blue, off-color language would be considered newsroom poetry.

If the White House Correspondents' Association members got their bloomers in a wad over Michelle Wolf, they probably wouldn't last five minutes sitting next to my colleagues in the Tampa Bay Times newsroom. Yes, there will be bawdiness.

To be fair, Wolf did get off one good line when she observed; "It's kind of crazy that the Trump campaign was in contact with Russia when the Hillary (Clinton) campaign wasn't even in contact with Michigan."

Still, judging from all the frozen, puckered faces in the ballroom, Wolf clearly misjudged her audience. But she is not the problem here. She is merely the symptom of the current state of public discourse.

The annual correspondents' dinner has had plenty of highlights and low moments. Back in the 1990s, radio personality Don Imus delivered an eye-rolling, awkward performance focusing on the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal with President Bill Clinton fuming a few feet away.

At least Clinton and every other president who succeeded him showed up to run the risk of being lampooned -- for better or for worse. But not the current incumbent. Is anyone surprised?

After all, this is a president who fired FBI Director James Comey while Comey was thousands of miles away in California, and he dismissed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson via Twitter. Did anyone expect Trump, who has derided the nation's press corps as "fake news," would have the spine to spend an evening face-to-face in the same room with the very people he claims to loathe?

And there is this. One might argue that for all his short-comings, Trump is self-aware enough to know he has no sense of humor, which may be understandable for an undertaker but hardly helpful for a president.

Presidents at these events are expected to perform as well, and from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, the leaders of the free world have proven to be pretty funny at their own expense. Tough acts to follow.

But presidents also exert tremendous influence over the nation's culture. And when you have a figure who as a candidate and now president has managed to crudely insult almost every corner of American life, with the possible exception of the Lassie Fan Club, is it any wonder Wolf felt comfortable enough to stand before the Washington press corps and the rest of the nation who might have tuned in to the event on television, and break into her David Mamet starter kit?

It is hard to fathom such an X-rated performance would have been even considered had Gerald Ford, or Jimmy Carter, or Reagan, or George H.W. Bush, or Obama been sitting on the dais.

From his own potty-mouth bully pulpit, an emotionally needy Trump has set the tone for what passes for the national conversation. The West Wing has been rhetorically transformed into the Howard Stern Show.

So, set against a political climate where a veracity-challenged president berates just about everyone, picks inane feuds and avoids direct confrontations with his critics, you expected an elegant satirist in the mold of Jonathan Swift to headline the White House Correspondents' Association dinner?

Everyone got exactly what they deserved for what we have become. A slice of déclassé served up cold.