Woeful tradition of comedians before Congress

On the Thursday after Memorial Day, 1933, J. Pierpont Morgan Jr. sat at the witness table awaiting the resumption of a hearing by the Senate Banking Committee investigating the practices of New York investment banks. Suddenly, a publicist with the Ringling Brothers circus thrust a German-born dwarf named Lya Graf onto Morgan’s lap: “The smallest lady in the world wants to meet the richest man in the world!” announced the publicist. The room erupted in laughter, photographers crowded in to take pictures, and a smiling Morgan exchanged pleasantries with Miss Graf, complimenting her on her hat.

This was not the first, nor would it be the last, time the dignity of Congress — pardon the expression — had been assaulted for theatrical purposes. In 1966, the antiwar activist Jerry Rubin appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee dressed in the uniform of a Revolutionary War soldier; the following year, he showed up in the costume of an urban guerrilla, complete with toy rifle.

In more recent years, members of Congress have enlisted film and television actors to lend celebrity to their favored causes — Jane Fonda testified on the rural economy in the 1980s, Meryl Streep on the food additive Alar in the 1990s — and in 2002, Elmo from “Sesame Street” addressed a House education appropriations subcommittee on funding for school music programs.

So it may be said that the notion of celebrities petitioning the government at the invitation of Congress is now an established practice, and that Elmo did not speak as a citizen but in the guise of a character on a popular television program. None of this, however, quite equates with the appearance on Sept. 24 of comedian Stephen Colbert before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee at the invitation of its chairwoman, California Democrat Zoe Lofgren.

Sitting near the president of the United Farm Workers union, Colbert addressed the subcommittee on the subject of migrant farm workers, ostensibly in support of a UFW organizing campaign. He had spent a recent day pretending to do agricultural work, and the stunt was the ostensible subject of his testimony.

Members of Congress are not famous for the sophistication of their humor, and it is debatable how many Americans, the vast majority of whom do not watch “The Colbert Report,” comprehend that Stephen Colbert’s act is “ironic” in intent, and that his “right-wing blowhard” character deliberately promotes ludicrous positions for political purpose. There was a smattering of nervous laughter in the audience as Colbert spoke, and the committee (including its Democratic members) sat stoically throughout his performance.

When the hearing concluded, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi defended his appearance (and her California colleague Lofgren) with some decidedly equivocal words: “He’s an American, right? He came before the committee. He has a point of view. He can bring attention to an important issue like immigration. I think it’s great.”

Of course, no one had disputed Colbert’s right as an American to petition Congress; the question was whether this particular episode reduced public esteem for Congress to unprecedented depths or, a little over a month before the midterm elections, revealed the desperation and disharmony — and the attendant lack of judgment — within Democratic ranks.

In due course, it fell to Speaker Pelosi’s deputy, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, to acknowledge what had been obvious the week before: “I think it was inappropriate,” he said.

Philip Terzian is literary editor of The Weekly Standard, where this article appeared.

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