Note: I wrote this short piece after the final episode of The Colbert Report. It became relevant again when Hillary Clinton recently expressed admiration for Henry Kissinger in order to demonstrate that she should be trusted on foreign policy. Colbert’s benign attitude toward Kissinger and other reprehensible political figures is similarly disappointing, and at the core shows a lack of empathy for the victims of disastrous U.S. foreign and domestic policy choices. It’s been lightly edited.
The Colbert Report is over. I regularly watched the show (and The Daily Show) when it started, but I petered out and hadn’t watched an episode in a few years. I did not watch the final episode, although the episode was no different. It became a cultural moment and was covered widely in the media. Colbert stayed in character and ended the episode by singing a farewell song alongside dozens of “celebrities.” This stunt was generally well received by mainstream media sources.
From these reports, the final episode sounded like Colbert at his worst. The list of celebrities who appeared included Mike Huckabee, Thomas Friedman, Grover Norquist, Andrew Sullivan, Samantha Power, and Henry Kissinger. These are people who have terrible ideas, who are either war mongers or war apologists, and in the case of Kissinger, are responsible for enormous suffering and death. They should not be elevated or validated and their celebrity is grotesque. Colbert could have used this moment to highlight people who deserved respect, who courageously advocated for positions that aligned with his purported politics. Instead, he shared his stage with people who represent the worst of American foreign and domestic policy.
The scene also showed that the political establishment is very comfortable with Colbert. When Bill Clinton, Nicholas Kristof, Mike Huckabee, Arianna Huffington, Thomas Friedman, Cory Booker, Andrew Sullivan, Henry Kissinger, Paul Krugman, and General Odierno come together and celebrate a political satirist, it’s clear that Colbert’s tepid dissent did not threaten the status quo, at least any longer. Colbert had good moments, especially his performance at the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner (where he used the stage he was given to embarrass President Bush and other Washington figures), but he either didn’t try or couldn’t figure out how to keep his political subversiveness, and eventually he cashed out long after it was lost.