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EVENING AT THE WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY IMPROV

by Steve Young

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Steve Young columns

"I guess that last vestige of decency is gone."

-- Ari Fleischer, May 30, 2008

He'll be here all week, folks. Or as long as the fallout from Scott McClellan's book continues to provide material for Bush apologists explaining why McClellan may not be a liar, but he has broken the press secretary comedy code. He told the truth. Finally. And with truth-speak comes an end to a fine standup career. Anyone who says that truth is funnier that fiction, probably has never seen a good comic or isn‘t familiar with what it takes to be a side-splitting White House press secretary.

Good evening, and welcome to the White House Press Secretary Improv.

"I think it's unethical to carry out a job and then turn around and kiss and tell," said Sheila "Shecky" Tate, former press secretary to George H.W. Bush.

Sure, if he's a terrible kisser.

BAM! There ya go. Whether a set-up or a punch line itself, it's funny. Great satire really. Though it could be irony. The comedic brilliance of the White House makes pinning down an exact designation difficult.


At the White House, or on their post see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, ignore the evil that will cause tens of thousands to lose their futures, tour, press secretaries are a droll sort. Sometimes, within satire, exists the approval of the very thing the satirist actually wishes to attack. In Shecky Tate's near perfect joke, she's actually saying that if you don't like the way the president is screwing up the country you should quit, shut up and continue to let American soldiers die.

Funny? Sure. A little dark? Some of the best stuff is. Risky? Of course, but the great ones are always willing to take a chance.

"I'm not sure anything went wrong." Bush Press Secretary, Tony Snow, on the pre-Iraq War planning.

Lie? Misinformed? Out of the Loop?

Nope. Just plain old biting wit.

The Washington Post reported that "both Fleischer and Joe Lockhart, press secretary during the Clinton administration, worry that the 300-page book might cause future presidents to be less candid with their press secretaries."

Less candid?! Who in the White House was ever straight with him? This is a guy who actually thought Karl Rove was telling him the truth. But that's why it's funny. Steven Wright or Ari Fliescher, take your pick. Using an absurdity and speaking it as if it's actually the truth is harder than it looks. Ask Dick Cheney how hard it was to keep a straight face when he did his "insurgency in their last throes" bit. You sound honest, but you're just feeding the public a line of crap. You know, sort of like Bill O'Reilly.

You don't walk to the microphone and automatically become a great comic or conman. It takes years of practice. Try saying, "Protocols were in place and followed," forty-four times in a single press briefing to explain the choice not to interrupt President Bush's bike ride to tell him that the Capitol, and his home, might be under terrorist attack. Not once did McClellan break character. If there be one problem with that bit was that McClellan broke the comedy rule of threes.

Good punchline. Better punchline. Best punchline.

His classic Valerie Plame-outing routine would show he was to get better.

Good: "(Rove and Libby are) good individuals, they're important members of our White House team, and that's why I spoke with them, so that I could come back to you and say that they were not involved,"

Better: "I'd like to answer but I can't address anything that's an ongoing investigation."

Best: "The most powerful leader in the world had called upon me to speak on his behalf and help restore credibility he lost amid the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So I stood at the White house briefing room podium in front of the glare of the klieg lights for the better part of two weeks and publicly exonerated two of the senior-most aides in the White House: Karl Rove and Scooter Libby. There was one problem. It was not true. I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the vice President, the President's chief of staff, and the president himself."

Not exactly the comic angst of Richard Lewis, but still, hilarious.

And don't think the ladies of Press Secretary Standup are any less adept at tearin' up the joint. Take newcomer, Dana Perino, the Elayne Boosler of PS world.

"We are pursuing a diplomatic solution in Iran." Perino, defending the White House over a Seymour Hersh article claiming that Bush was planning war with Iran.

Subtle. Gives credit to her audience for catching her call back to President Bush's classic "Iran diplomatic solution," set. Not up there with Sarah Silverstein...yet. But with a couple more good Saturday spots at the PS Improv, she'll understand that tagging it with "Saying that, all options are on the table," makes a good joke, a great one.

Those who think that McClellan is some kind of Johnny "Come Lately" Stewart, check out his March 22, 2004, set, referring to Richard Clarke, former Bush chief counter-terrorism adviser who had skewered the Bush White House in a book after he had resigned.

"Why, all of a sudden, if he had all these grave concerns, did he not raise these sooner? This is one-and-a-half years after he left the administration. And now, all of a sudden, he's raising these grave concerns that he claims he had. And I think you have to look at some of the facts. One, he is bringing this up in the heat of a presidential campaign. He has written a book and he certainly wants to go out there and promote that book."

Comedy? Nay, genius.

Well, I'm getting the light. Let me just say that you are the best press conference I've had...since last press conference. But I tellya.

Goodnight everyone. Remember to tip your agents.


Award-winning television writer and author of Great Failures of the Extremely Successful" (www.greatfailure.com), Steve Young, is a former talk show host, writes ad finitum on talk radio. His "All The News That's Fit To Spoof" appears in L.A. Daily News opeds every Sunday (www.dailynews.com/columnists)

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Albion Monitor   May 28, 2008   (http://www.albionmonitor.com)

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