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Michelle Wolf Is Too Hot for Washington

As you may have heard, Michelle Wolf got in hot water for her routine at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last night. But before we get into debating whether the punishment fit the crime—should she have been boiled, poached or just put under a shower?—let’s consider the nature of the water. Just like the city officials of Flint, Michigan, who got a drive-by shout-out at the end of her routine, the Washington, D.C., press corps has a very special notion of potable H20. 

As Beltway rituals go, the WHCD has always been perplexing because self-importance and slapstick are such a strained mix. A roomful of pompous people whose sense of humor about themselves makes Easter Island statues look like the studio audience at a vintage Two and a Half Men taping might be better off just giving up on pretending that they enjoy being spoofed, but then the event wouldn’t have any media profile at all. The trade-off is that the Beltway elite will fake being good sports for the cameras in exchange for the flattery of being entertained by someone who’s taken the trouble to bone up on the club’s idea of inside jokes, but that’s just what Wolf didn’t do. She advertised herself as an unimpressed outsider, which was her first sin.

Was she crude? Sure, if you’ve somehow gotten through life without ever being exposed to a single HBO special starring any male comic in captivity. That may very well be true of this particular crowd, but it doesn’t exactly do credit to their familiarity with American life as the rest of us know it. Wolf probably lost them the first time she said “pussy,” and the reminder that she’s owned one of her own since her birth wasn’t calculated to win them back. In fact, that gynecological moment probably defined her outsider status all by itself, because Washington’s comfort level with assertive women depends on their willingness to desexualize themselves in return. (Wolf was only the fourth female comic to headline the dinner in the association’s long history.)
Far from putting her career at risk, Michelle Wolf has considerably boosted her profile.
Then again, you didn’t have to be a D.C. stuffed shirt to groan at some of her misfires. Her instantly notorious riff on Sarah Huckabee Sanders—pretending to be confused about her name to set up a bad punchline about how a female Uncle Tom ought to be called “Aunt Coulter”—was actually one of her clunkers, not one of the highlights. It only got people’s attention because a) Sanders, unlike her boss, was right there in the room, and b) the right-wing Twitterverse, with New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman chiming in to express the Establishment’s displeasure at Wolf’s effrontery, claiming that she'd mocked Sanders’ physical appearance, which Wolf says she didn't do.

Preposterously, Sanders herself got praised for remaining “stoic” instead of walking out in a huff, when her whole job was to sit there and prove this White House can take it on the chin—just not Trump’s own chin, which was wagging away in Michigan at the time. But American Conservative Union head Matt Schlapp, along with other Trumpies, did walk out. Wolf’s “Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it” abortion joke probably sent them scrambling to the exits, if they hadn’t bailed already.

When her zingers landed, though, it wasn’t necessarily because they were funny. It was because they were pitiless. “Mike Pence is what happens when Anderson Cooper isn’t gay” was both, partly because you instantly flashed on picturing Pence’s homophobic consternation at the superimposition of his face on Cooper’s. A line of Wolf’s we liked even better was, “You guys are going through Cabinet members faster than Starbucks throws out black people,” because the revolving-door joke depended on comparing D.C.’s government mucky-mucks to ordinary Americans—a definite no-no, since it forced them to imagine being treated that way.

The instant hue and cry over Wolf’s routine, however, was nearly as comical as anything she said. White House Correspondents’ Association president Margaret Talev put out a prim statement condemning the headliner’s rude jokes as “not in the spirit” of the occasion, which only raises the question of just what the occasion’s spirit is supposed to be. If it’s just a chummy love fest between Washington’s political and media bigfeet, then why hire Michelle Wolf in the first place—or any other comedian, for that matter? And if the WHCD is supposed to gutsily celebrate the First Amendment, which under this Administration both is and ought to be an act of defiance, then why not feature someone who’s putting it into action instead of mouthing pieties or stroking the crowd with namby-pamby jokes? If Wolf and the WHCA were a bad fit, one obvious reason was that she knew what she was doing, and the WHCA didn’t.

In fact, it never has. But the event’s muddled nature has turned unmistakable, now that its traditional guest of honor is a no-show. No matter how grudgingly, previous presidents have understood that this is the one night when they’ve got to demonstrate supporting freedom of the press. It’s also their big opportunity to pass themselves off as genial and funny people, and most of them have recognized what good PR that is. Obama’s speechwriters used to labor almost as hard over his WHCD appearances as they did on the State of the Union address, and nobody’s ever called Obama un-shrewd.

Since Trump actually doesn’t support freedom of the press, however—and as for faking geniality, forget it—the WHCD now only makes sense if it’s oppositional, not conciliatory. It’s absurd to valorize Wolf too much, as Trump-hating America already is. Far from putting her career at risk, she’s considerably boosted her profile. (And indeed, she tells NPR that she "wouldn't change a single word.") Nonetheless, if her routine ends up being the tipping point that convinces the WHCA to just solemnly hand out its boring awards and give up on trying to be showbiz, we’ll all be in her debt. The First Amendment deserves better tributes than a Beltway circle jerk in nerd-prom disguise.

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