When clowns behave foolishly, deny them an audience

When clowns behave foolishly, deny them an audience
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In a letter to Helvetius, a French philosopher, in 1770, Voltaire wrote a perceptive line that has been recycled by others through the years, including Thomas Jefferson. Voltaire wrote: I wholly disapprove of what you say — and will defend to the death your right to say it.”

I recalled that thought as I read critics’ remarks about Michelle Wolf’s embarrassing, crude commentary during last Sunday’s White House Correspondents' Association dinner. Yes, she had the right to say whatever she wanted to say at an opportune moment before a vast public audience, but her audience had its right to turn off her presentation — as I did. And the correspondents who were present could have done the same, by walking away during her presentation. I’ve often wondered why reporters who cover President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump fires intelligence community inspector general who flagged Ukraine whistleblower complaint Trump organization has laid off over 1000 employees due to pandemic: report Trump invokes Defense Production Act to prevent export of surgical masks, gloves MORE, those he has cruelly maligned before audiences, didn’t just walk away, denying him the free coverage he got through his antics.

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In the contentious aftermath of her crass shtick, Wolf’s defenders — including The New York Times and comedian Dave Chappelle — claimed her remarks revealed a pungent but true commentary on the current administration. I must have been watching another show, because what I saw was not appropriate for the room full of correspondents or those of us at home who watched, hoping for a clever editorial roasting, not nasty comments about people in and out of the room.

 

Her last, serious line was not enough to save the night. Wolf gave Trump and his followers (I am not one) ammunition for his criticisms of the event. She also told the correspondents they were responsible for Trump’s political victory because of their coverage of his outrageous remarks and behavior, to the exclusion of his competitors. That criticism was lost in all the foul language and snide remarks.

I’ve attended Gridiron dinners through the years where politicians and jokesters entertained each other; their barbs and interactions never reached the level to which Wolf sank. This presentation reminds us of Kathy Griffin’s ill-advised stunt last year, where she held up a photo of a bloody, severed head that appeared to be Trump’s. Now, CBS reportedly is reconsidering its sponsorship of the White House Correspondents' Association event, and for good reason. The group ought to consider who it invites. Fun is fun; some ribaldry is fair enough. But Wolf’s routine was in the style of the worst cable TV pseudo-comedy.

A caustic performance such as this one raises the classic civil liberties point — one that arose when Nazis demanded the right to march in Skokie, Illinois, chanting their evil hate in the late 1970s. The answer is not to keep them from doing so but for audiences to not show up, or to walk away and not provide the noxious speakers what they desire: a horrified response. Walk out of the room, or shut off the TV. Even Voltaire would have agreed with this advice.

Given today’s pervasive political animosity, Stephen Sondheim had it so right in his classic song, “Send in the Clowns.” The wise words of baseball great Yogi Berra, humorist and performer Will Rogers — and more recently, the comic routines of late night hosts Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert — have made us laugh as they made us think. With fewer words, cartoonist Garry Trudeau can do this with his daily takes on current events and issues in his Doonesbury strip.

Yes, often, our funny men and women can do a better job of nailing political commentary than our pundits. And the idea of comedic criticism remains very much alive — though after last Sunday, Michelle Wolf does not play in their leagues.

“Quick, send in the clowns. Don’t bother — they’re here.” Some of them.

Ronald Goldfarb is the founder of Goldfarb & Associates, a Washington law firm and literary agency that represents print journalists, television correspondents, policymakers and politicians. A public interest lawyer for many years, he is the author of 13 books and hundreds of articles.