Stephen Colbert

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As The Colbert Report fades to black on Comedy Central, it’s a good time to recall that the year before “truthiness” laughingly made its way into the lexicon in 2005, Ron Suskind introduced the concept into the American consciousness in one of the best pieces of political journalism in memory, his jaw-dropping New York Times Magazine article, “Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush.” So inconceivable was the story’s idea that our government was being run by something other than a “reality-based community,” that those in power were operating in willful denial of facts, that many questioned Suskind’s work, but it all, sadly, turned out to be true, so true. Two excerpts follow.


In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ”in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who ”believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Who besides guys like me are part of the reality-based community? Many of the other elected officials in Washington, it would seem. A group of Democratic and Republican members of Congress were called in to discuss Iraq sometime before the October 2002 vote authorizing Bush to move forward. A Republican senator recently told Time Magazine that the president walked in and said: ”Look, I want your vote. I’m not going to debate it with you.” When one of the senators began to ask a question, Bush snapped, ”Look, I’m not going to debate it with you.”

The 9/11 commission did not directly address the question of whether Bush exerted influence over the intelligence community about the existence of weapons of mass destruction. That question will be investigated after the election, but if no tangible evidence of undue pressure is found, few officials or alumni of the administration whom I spoke to are likely to be surprised. ”If you operate in a certain way — by saying this is how I want to justify what I’ve already decided to do, and I don’t care how you pull it off — you guarantee that you’ll get faulty, one-sided information,” Paul O’Neill, who was asked to resign his post of treasury secretary in December 2002, said when we had dinner a few weeks ago. ”You don’t have to issue an edict, or twist arms, or be overt.”

In a way, the president got what he wanted: a National Intelligence Estimate on W.M.D. that creatively marshaled a few thin facts, and then Colin Powell putting his credibility on the line at the United Nations in a show of faith. That was enough for George W. Bush to press forward and invade Iraq. As he told his quasi-memoirist, Bob Woodward, in ”Plan of Attack”: ”Going into this period, I was praying for strength to do the Lord’s will. . . . I’m surely not going to justify the war based upon God. Understand that. Nevertheless, in my case, I pray to be as good a messenger of his will as possible.”

Machiavelli’s oft-cited line about the adequacy of the perception of power prompts a question. Is the appearance of confidence as important as its possession? Can confidence — true confidence — be willed? Or must it be earned?

George W. Bush, clearly, is one of history’s great confidence men.


There is one story about Bush’s particular brand of certainty I am able to piece together and tell for the record.

In the Oval Office in December 2002, the president met with a few ranking senators and members of the House, both Republicans and Democrats. In those days, there were high hopes that the United States-sponsored ”road map” for the Israelis and Palestinians would be a pathway to peace, and the discussion that wintry day was, in part, about countries providing peacekeeping forces in the region. The problem, everyone agreed, was that a number of European countries, like France and Germany, had armies that were not trusted by either the Israelis or Palestinians. One congressman — the Hungarian-born Tom Lantos, a Democrat from California and the only Holocaust survivor in Congress — mentioned that the Scandinavian countries were viewed more positively. Lantos went on to describe for the president how the Swedish Army might be an ideal candidate to anchor a small peacekeeping force on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Sweden has a well-trained force of about 25,000. The president looked at him appraisingly, several people in the room recall.

”I don’t know why you’re talking about Sweden,” Bush said. ”They’re the neutral one. They don’t have an army.”

Lantos paused, a little shocked, and offered a gentlemanly reply: ”Mr. President, you may have thought that I said Switzerland. They’re the ones that are historically neutral, without an army.” Then Lantos mentioned, in a gracious aside, that the Swiss do have a tough national guard to protect the country in the event of invasion.

Bush held to his view. ”No, no, it’s Sweden that has no army.”

The room went silent, until someone changed the subject.”•

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Stephen Colbert, preparing for a demotion to network TV, interviews Elon Musk about rockets, Tesla patents and jetpacks.

If one of SpaceX’s reusable rockets should implode over the next few years, will there be a huge overreaction to such an occurrence? Unfortunate, certainly, but it would really be an unsurprising outcome in rocketry, part of the learning curve.

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Pete Seeger, in 2012, trading bon mots with that “right-wing gun nut” Stephen Colbert. The host is brilliant, as he always is, in using just a few words to trace the history of lefty politics from the folk movement forward.

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From Edward Luce’s new Financial Times profile of Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, a passage about the marketization of morality:

I ask him about his latest book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, in which he argues that the US and other countries are turning from market economies into market societies, as Lionel Jospin, the former French prime minister, once put it. Sandel argues that we live in a time of deepening ‘market faith’ in which fewer and fewer exceptions are permitted to the prevailing culture of transaction. The book has infuriated some economists, whom he sees as practitioners of a ‘spurious science.’

He has been at loggerheads with the profession for many years. In 1997, he enraged economists when he attacked the Kyoto protocol on global warming as having removed ‘moral stigma’ from bad activity by turning the right to pollute into a tradeable permit. Economists said he misunderstood why markets work. Sandel retorts that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing. To judge by his sellout lecture tours, he has clearly tapped into a larger disquiet about the commodification of life.

Which countries are the least receptive to his concerns about market fundamentalism? ‘China and the US – no question,’ he replies instantly. ‘In other parts of east Asia, in Europe and in the UK and in India and Brazil, it goes without arguing that there are moral limits to markets and the question is where to locate them. In the US and China, there are strong voices who will challenge the whole idea of there being any limits.’”


“What’s you answer, smartypants?” asks TV’s best talk-show host.

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When Dick Cavett was a TV talk-show host, he almost never sat behind a desk, which made it very difficult for him to hide his penis. The nation stared at the shame of his sex as it flopped about. Still, the show went on.

In Cavett’s New York Times blog and in culture critic Ken Tucker’s long, new Grantland article about the current late-night shuffling and scuffling, each man names the same host as his favorite in the ever-more-crowded yet ever-less-influential world of late-night television: Stephen Colbert. (His reign will continue until Donald Trump gets a talk show. He’s the best at everything.) An excerpt:

From Cavett: “And speaking of Dave’s presumably stepping aside some sad day, if CBS is smart, there is in full view a self-evident successor to The Big L. of Indiana.

The man I’m thinking of has pulled off a miraculous, sustained feat, against all predictions — descendants of those same wise heads who foresaw a truncated run for the Carson boy — of making a smashing success while conducting his show for years with a dual personality. And I don’t mean Rush Limbaugh (success without personality).

I can testify, as can anyone who’s met him and seen him as himself, how much more there is to Stephen Colbert than the genius job he does in his ‘role’ on The Colbert Report. Everything about him — as himself — qualifies him for that chair at the Ed Sullivan Theater that Letterman has so deftly and expertly warmed for so long. Colbert is, among other virtues, endowed with a first-rate mind, a great ad-lib wit, skilled comic movement and gesture, fine education, seemingly unlimited knowledge of affairs and events and, from delightful occasional evidence, those things called The Liberal Arts — I’ll bet you he could name the author of Peregrine Pickle. And on top of that largess of qualities (and I hope he won’t take me the wrong way here), good looks.

Should such a day come, don’t blow it, CBS.”

From Tucker: “Stephen Colbert is, for me, working on a whole different level from anyone else, and is currently the most consistent, deeply satisfying late-night host. Colbert’s ability to joke and conduct interviews on The Colbert Report while inhabiting a persona antithetical to what is probably a profoundly decent person beneath that smirk ‘n’ makeup is the most sustained piece of performance art ever. I’m not saying he’s greater than Letterman was (and still can be) at his best, but that they both inhabit roles (for Dave, the ironic rube; for Stephen, the cheerfully evil asshole) as utterly as Daniel Day-Lewis.”

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Steven Pinker, author of The Stuff of Thought among other provocative books, provides a history of violence–and its gradual decline–at Edge. An excerpt about the mitigating effect the printing press had on violence:

“By the 18th century a majority of men in England were literate.

Why should literacy matter? A number of the causes are summed up by the term ‘Enlightenment.’ For one thing, knowledge replaced superstition and ignorance: beliefs such as that Jews poisoned wells, heretics go to hell, witches cause crop failures, children are possessed, and Africans are brutish. As Voltaire said, ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.’

Also, literacy gives rise to cosmopolitanism. It is plausible that the reading of history, journalism, and fiction puts people into the habit of inhabiting other peoples’ minds, which could increase empathy and therefore make cruelty less appealing. This is a point I’ll return to later in the talk.”


Pinker talks the same topic at TED:

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Many types of ghost media (telegrams, telex, etc.) that have been seemingly made obsolete by the advent of broadband still actually soldier on. An excerpt from a piece about so-called dead media at Ars Technica:

“Few people send out messages via Morse code any more. But the basic telegram concept—a missive spoken to an operator, then transmitted across wires or wireless, then hand-delivered to a recipient—is alive and well.

In fact, as in the nineteenth century, Telegrams Canada will write your telegram for you—or at least suggest gram language for appropriate occasions. The ‘Get Well’ suggestions include ‘The office/this place is just not the same without you,’ and ‘Your many friends here are hoping for your quick recovery.’

The service isn’t cheap. A same business day telegram costs CAN$19.95 plus 99¢ per word. ‘Quebec usually next business day,’ the company advises. ‘Rural routes and post office boxes may take longer.'” (Thanks Browser.)


Balki receives a vital telegram:

Stephen Colbert euolgizes the Western Union telegram:

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You hear the drumbeat from Tea Party activists and pandering politicians about how government is getting too much control of our lives, gaining too much power. Of course, the opposite is true. As technology continues personalizing and proliferating, government is going to have an increasingly harder time regulating business, communications and individuals. That implies both good and bad things. Personal liberties are paramount, but the ability to marshal the force of government is often crucial during crises.

In “City of Fear,” an  excellent 2007 Vanity Fair article by the routinely great William Langewiesche, the writer looks at how a Brazilian prison gang used cell phones to coordinate the shutdown of a city, and what this implies for the future of central control in general. Subsequent uprisings in Middle Eastern countries have made this piece seem prophetic. The article’s opening:

“For seven days last May the city of São Paulo, Brazil, teetered on the edge of a feral zone where governments barely reach and countries lose their meaning. That zone is a wilderness inhabited already by large populations worldwide, but officially denied and rarely described. It is not a throwback to the Dark Ages, but an evolution toward something new—a companion to globalization, and an element in a fundamental reordering that may gradually render national boundaries obsolete. It is most obvious in the narco-lands of Colombia and Mexico, in the fractured swaths of Africa, in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, in much of Iraq. But it also exists beneath the surface in places where governments are believed to govern and countries still seem to be strong.”


William Langewiesche and Stephen Colbert discuss the spread of nukes:


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