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Matt Frei's diary: Satire's sting

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

President Obama on 14 October
President Obama is now the subject of some sharp humour

Initial reports of the demise of presidential satire under Barack Obama, had, it turns out, been greatly exaggerated.

Late-night comedians once feared that the man who Oprah anointed "The One" defied their sharp tongues because of an infuriating mixture of talent and race.

Their eyes misted over with nostalgia for the halcyon days of W, when every day dished up another unintended neologism wrapped in a rhetorical pretzel. Ahh, for those "misunderestimated suiciders!"

But laughter at the expense of the 44th commander-in-chief is alive, kicking and getting as sharp as ripe Cheddar.

The sweet poison of satire had been seeping into the political brew for some time.

The man who was compared to Abraham Lincoln even before he swivelled in his Oval Office chair was bound to create a gulf between expectation and achievement. It was only a matter of time. And it was always going to be - partially - unfair.

Vultures circling

Obama is one of those politicians on to whom the whole world has projected their own hopes and aspirations.

Matt Frei in the BBC World News America studio
The Nobel Peace Prize has delivered the missing punch-line to every Obama joke

Global popularity has clung to him like Glenn Close to Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction. As he himself liked to tell swooning crowds during his sweeping election campaign: "It's all about you!"

Not that he minded the adulation. Which politician wouldn't? But popularity has its own perils.

Satire is like an oil slick. It spreads fast but it takes time to acquire a recognisable form, to find a plausible narrative.

The vultures had been circling for weeks around the obvious first draft of the transformational president who - so far - has transformed precious little.

But to really sting, satire needs plausible detail. The Nobel Peace Prize has provided it.

It has delivered the missing punch-line to every Obama joke. It is a gift to late-night comedians. It creates a prism through which all the other humour can be filtered.

Barack Obama with wife Michelle and Oprah Winfrey during campaigning, Dec 2007
Mr Obama was the subject of wide adulation during election campaigning

The president knows this, which is why I think he was genuinely surprised when he was first told the news on Friday morning and why he told his audience in the Rose Garden that he did not "view the prize as recognition of my own accomplishments!"

In my view, he should have just turned it down with good grace.

The people who love him here and around the world would not have liked him any less for it, his right-wing detractors would have been furious and the late-night comedians would have been lost for words.

Alas, that opportunity was missed. But I disagree with those who believe that accepting the prize was a disaster.

Much depends on the speech Obama will give in Oslo.

As Tom Friedman of the New York Times has suggested, he could surprise his audience with a homily to the world's most consistent and reliable peacekeepers in the last century: the US military.

Garbled language

But there is a bigger point here.

Satire and ribbing are as inevitable for this president as for all his predecessors. They can also do him a service by bringing him down to earth.

President George W Bush with a West African dance company at the White House, Apr 2007
Former President George W Bush provided ample material for comedians

Every president has his own satirical stamp, which is part caricature, part truth.

George W Bush was caught between ideological faith and intellectual failure; Bill Clinton embodied the Herculean struggle between intellect and libido; George H W Bush encapsulated the gulf between pedigree and pusillanimity.

Clinton wrapped his peccadilloes in legalistic garlands about the meaning of the word "is". The phrase "I smoked but I didn't inhale" came to define so much more than his experimentation with marijuana at university.

And so on. The challenge is not the ridicule but the response.

If only Bush "41" had displayed some of his vintage dry humour while he was running for re-election.

Bush "43" was extremely adept at embracing the barbs that were meant to harm him.

His 2004 campaign speeches reached a crescendo of self-ridicule in which he turned his ability to garble the English language into proof of his artless sincerity. "You get what you see" was the line and Republicans loved it.

Obama has shown time and again that he is good at defusing both bile and adulation with a light touch. The man has his own sense of humour. Now is the time to deploy it.

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday on BBC News, BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).

And you can hear Matt present Americana on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service every week.


Send us your comments in reaction to Matt Frei's Washington diary here.



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