The benefits of a funnyman meddling in serious business

by Hayden Wright / Beacon Staff • January 19, 2012

My appreciation for Stephen Colbert has never matched my love of Jon Stewart. I don’t mean to imply that I dislike Stephen Colbert. He’s hilarious. But if I wanted to watch a right-wing blowhard on a nightly basis, I’d turn to Fox News. Reality is stranger than fiction, it’s said — and sometimes funnier. 

That’s why Colbert’s most electrifying turn has been his efforts to meddle with the reality of our political process. 

While I prefer Stewart’s flabbergasted media watchdog to Colbert’s caricatured hawk, the work Colbert has done since the formation of the Colbert Super Political Action Committee (PAC) in June 2011 has shed light on arguably the most corrupt and misunderstood area of campaign finance. PACs have come under fire as unrestrained fundraising arms of campaigns, whose orchestrators fund expensive attack ads in thinly-veiled collusion with specific candidates. 

After using his nightly show as a platform to expose the absurdity of the Super PAC, Colbert turned the reins of his committee over to Stewart so that he could explore seeking higher office as a presidential candidate. His first stop without declaring an official candidacy is, ludicrously, “The United States of South Carolina.”

The sense many detractors have, however, is that Colbert is wasting their time.

Leslie Marshall, a liberal talk radio host, voiced her displeasure at Colbert’s antics in Politico’s The Arena. “Colbert’s not a joke, he’s a comedian who makes them,” she said. “Unfortunately he and many of his followers are choosing to make a mockery of both our voting process and the seriousness of an individual running for office.” 

She and many like-minded pundits remind us that Colbert is a comic who should use his celebrity for good, turning his focus toward voter registration and even the endorsement of legitimate candidates—to enter the fold with Colbert’s comedic intentions is mere meddling. 

This week, those detractors found speculative evidence of this in Jon Huntsman’s withdrawal after declaring his third-place finish in New Hampshire “a ticket to ride.” 

Huntsman’s abrupt departure from the race on Monday had many fingers pointed at Colbert. The most recent Public Polling Policy poll showed Colbert leading Huntsman in South Carolina five percent to four percent. The Huffington Post reported that a high-ranking source said Huntsman and his family “wanted to preserve some dignity at the end.” To trail Colbert in South Carolina polls, Huntsman “risked becoming a laughingstock” at the expense of the comedian’s stunt candidacy. 

To be fair, Huntsman had no business going forward with his candidacy. With low poll numbers and limited funds, Stephen Colbert’s threat to his campaign was perhaps the least of his worries. However, it’s the worry the press has run with as Colbert’s South Carolina media assault continues. On his Monday show, Colbert victoriously said, “The mere possibility that I might run for president blew Jon Huntsman all the way back to the Lands’ End catalog he came from!”

In polls, Colbert has effectively entered the fray of New Hampshire primary survivors. His Super PAC has, nearly in the style of Newt Gingrich, thrown money around attacking front-runner Mitt Romney — accusing him of being “Mitt the Ripper,” a serial killer of corporations. In another, South Carolinians are urged to support Herman Cain, who dropped out of the race months ago. Despite those mixed messages, Colbert’s straight face challenges anyone to call his candidacy a fraud. His efforts are satire incarnate, acting in the real world. 

Colbert is, in fact, using his platform to expose the freewheeling and dangerous results of deregulation. Colbert’s Super PAC is a disgusting, bloated, in-your-face demonstration of the ills that routinely corrupt out political process. From his rapport with Stewart — ”Does being the business partner of a candidate while simultaneously operating a Super PAC constitute coordination?” “No!” — to the shameless, over-the-top, and sometimes illogical use of PAC money, his actions are both theatrical protest and public education. 

After all, campaign finance is a process that frequently happens behind closed doors, far out of view of the general public. Allowing Americans to watch the corruption in practice, exposing its absurdity, is Stephen Colbert’s gift to us. It will be a sad day if he ever breaks character.