On October 15, 2005, on the pilot episode of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert introduced a segment called “The Word.” That first night his first word was something he called “truthiness.” Colbert defined this term, not actually a word at the time, as something that a person knows to be a truth, even without evidence, logic, facts, or engaged thinking. It was a truth, he said, that one knows in his gut.
Colbert’s reference to “gut” thinking that night and later when he used the term made clear that this word was meant to apply to a type of thinking that was valorized in the Bush Administration from 2000-2008. In his campaign for president in 2000 and during his administration, George W. Bush repeatedly referred to the value of thinking from his gut and proclaimed the worth of his instincts. (Who can forget how he said that Vladimir Putin, longtime leader of Russia, was someone he could work with, someone who was a good man, because he had looked into Putin’s eyes and seen his soul? Yikes.)
Colbert’s “truthiness” seemed most linked to the war in Iraq. Whereas the war in Afghanistan was clearly connected to the Taliban’s support of Al Qaeda and the attack on 9/11, the war in Iraq never had a clearly articulated logic for why it should occur. The Bush Administration offered an ever-revolving series of reasons for why we should invade – Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, a link between Irag and Al Qaeda and Hussein’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks, Iraq’s stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction, and other reasons. Although the administration never offered concrete evidence of the link to 9/11, for instance, members of the administration repeatedly asserted a connection between planners of the attack and member of the Iraqi administration. When it comes to WMDs, of course, we’re still looking for those and the “evidence” that Colin Powell presented to the United Nations in argument for invasion seems a bit sketchy, to put it gently.
The power of “truthiness” was in its resonance with current events and it announced The Colbert Report‘s intentions to be fully engaged with the world of politics and to take on the hypocrisy, the falsifications, the mismanagement, and the hubris of those in power. The show, in other words, was a worthy follow-up to The Daily Show. But whereas Jon Stewart had been hosting The Daily Show, with its take on daily political stories, with a not-very-repressed air of “Are you shitting me?” wonderment, Colbert built on the persona he had created in his appearances on The Daily Show. In those appearances, Colbert had increasingly taken to producing knee-jerk responses to questions and events and a refusal to back down from those responses even in the face of factual evidence that demonstrated that his responses were overly partisan, wrong-headed, or just plain wrong. When Colbert moved to his own show, this persona was the one he brought with him and the one he has stayed in for over four years. “Truthiness,” then did not only refer to the Bush Administration, but also was meant to refer to Colbert’s persona itself, and indeed to the very ethos of The Colbert Report. And that was part of the genius of the satire. The show mocks the very thing that it refuses to ever abandon in terms of its representation. Colbert does not go out of character. Ever. But the satire of that character is ever clear, and the satire of the type of thinking that this character embodies is just as clear. And biting.
Which brings me to what I would call the performance of the decade. This was not a musical performance, nor a stellar bit of acting, nor a dramatic reading of a poem or novel. It was Colbert’s performance at the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner on April 26, 2006. At this dinner, at the invitation of the correspondents, Colbert gave a 16-minute speech and screened a 7-minute video for the guests at the dinner and a television audience. Here is the performance:
There are a number of things that are amazing about this performance. The president is two seats away from him as he presents this truly devastating critique. Most of the media there don’t seem to get that this is a) really really funny and b) really really devastating. Colbert never cracks character, he never leaves the persona, which makes the reading of the satire a bit more difficult I suppose, but doesn’t ever change its bite. It is a brave and bravura performance. He calls the president to task as he sits just feet away, but does it in such a way that the audience is left doubly uncomfortable. They’re not sure whether to laugh or cringe. Because they are also under attack in the performance, for their refusal or negligence in actually engaging with the Administrations lies and obfuscations and lack of evidence, the correspondents don’t seem to know whether it is okay for them to laugh or whether they should be insulted (they should feel both). Colbert was out on the plank by himself but he never stopped or slowed down. He kept going on.
The performance itself came under attack in the media as not funny, irresponsible, disrespectful, and inappropriate. But it caught on virally through word of mouth and rather quickly became a sensation. It was the embodiment of speaking truth to power, as the saying goes. Not “truthiness.” Truth. The performance had everything to do with truthiness, with thinking from and by the gut, with trusting your instincts even in the face of evidence to the contrary. And the performance was, I believe, central in the turn again Bush. Stephen Colbert became one of the most central political players on the national stage because he called “bullshit” when the media that was responsible for this refused to do the thinking or legwork required to do so.
That’s why “truthiness” is the word of the decade, and why Colbert is the performer of the decade.