The stand-up comedian Wanda Sykes took only seconds in her disciplined 15 minutes at the White House Correspondents' Dinner—a naughty performance that mocked both Barack Obama and Rush Limbaugh—to lay out a vision for the Republican Party. Of course, Sykes didn’t mean to help the GOP, yet in the manner of a prophet she climbed up on the mountaintop of C-SPAN at the precise moment that the glamorous tribes of Washington, New York, and Hollywood had gathered to worship, and she spoke the words that came to her as if from a special effects Yahweh. Wanda Sykes articulated a simple vision. She pictured a day in the distant future when the Republican Party will be free of its childlike dependence upon burlesque acts like Rush Limbaugh and his acolytes; free of their droning, repetitive excuses that the attack on New York and Washington gives them writ to bait and bully everyone who isn’t on the burlesque stage with them.
Watch Wanda Sykes at the White House Correspondents' Dinner
Wanda Sykes did all this when she was struck by lightning and said, “I think maybe Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker, but he was so strung out on OxyContin he missed his flight.” Then, in case we missed the reference to Limbaugh’s documented and illicit chemical dependency: “He hopes the country fails. I hope his kidneys fail, how ‘bout that…”
This bold and transforming remark was so potent that it frightened everyone official whose job depends upon behaving sensitively in public. The opaque Robert Gibbs at the White House press briefing the next morning ran away from the meaning of it all by saying that 9/11 is not a proper subject for humor. Bill Bennett’s dismissal of Wanda Sykes was performed on TV with slow-witted, swollen indignation, “This is why Elaine Bennett and I don’t go to these things…”
What Wanda Sykes has done for the GOP is to name the problem, and the problem is the party’s addiction to hambone performers who each day claim to be speaking for the so-called conservative base of the Republican Party.
Nevertheless, Wanda Sykes spoke it, the trinity of culturally elite cities heard it, and everyone knew that it was much more successful a strike than was easy to admit on camera. Jon Stewart commented with professional admiration, “That’s a hard joke.” But it was much more. It was a revelation to the GOP of what it means to be lost, without power, without leadership, out of ideas, time, patience, courage, and yet to be needy to the point of strung out on the daily palaver of a disembodied, troubled, ill-educated, powerless performer in his Orson Welles costume babbling alone in a radio studio in Florida.
What Wanda Sykes has done for the GOP is to name the problem, and the problem is the party’s addiction to hambone performers who each day claim to be speaking for the so-called conservative base of the Republican Party. These men and women are not politicians or political thinkers. They are lounge-room showbiz. Is this a disturbing fact to those who admire or loathe them? Rush Limbaugh and the others (and you know their names better than I do) are paid a lot of money by advertisers of cars, soaps, foods, drugs, software, and Hollywood to complain, moan, whine, pontificate, and harangue in a darkly comical way in order to upset their audiences. It is not real, and it is not sophisticated, and it is not usually honest. I throw in that it is most definitely not based upon the history of the Republicans or the country. I have been on talk radio since before the attacks on New York and Washington, but especially since then, and I have seen the burlesque house from backstage for years from the three cities that dominate the business. The men and women on air right now, who daily hector the Obama administration and the celebrity Democrats in Congress and elsewhere, are not Republican policy thinkers. Moreover, they are not usually Republicans.
The Republican pols I know spend a deal of energy trying to be sober, cautious, dutiful, ambitious, respectful, restless citizens. That’s necessary because they have to run for re-election. The Limbaughettes you hear on radio and TV are stand-up comedians who sit in a studio doing exactly what Wanda Sykes does with exactly the same material. Perhaps you think Wanda Sykes went too far? That’s what you are supposed to do if you are earning money to imitate Limbaugh.
Whatever party Rush Limbaugh thinks he belongs to in Florida, when he is on air attacking Arlen Specter or Colin Powell, he is not a Republican. He is a bullying whiner and a middle-aged man with a lot of cash and no sense of proportion. “…Anytime you have, y’know, liberals leaving the Republican Party,” Limbaugh rambled on camera and on mic on the day Arlen Specter changed his party affiliation in order to get re-elected in Pennsylvania, “rather than trying to change the party to become liberal, it’s a good thing. I wish more people who are not really Republican, who claim to be liberal Republicans, would do the same thing, yeah…”
Limbaugh’s remarks against Colin Powell are equally that of a very ex-Studio 54 bouncer: “What Colin Powell needs to do is close the loop and become a Democrat instead of claiming to be a Republican interested in reforming the Republican Party. He’s not. He’s a full-fledged Democrat. The only reason to endorse Obama is race…”
The business of politicians in a representative democracy is to raise money to get elected; and the business of the Republican Party is to raise as much money as possible from as many people as possible to win elections. The Republican Party was founded on and is built on the dynamo of liberty. Shunning, exiling, stoning, and tarring are not the party. Of the celebrity names that Wanda Sykes mentioned in her 15 minutes, only one, Sarah Palin, is useful to the party because she can raise money to get elected. The others, including George W. Bush, John McCain, and Dick Cheney, are not the future.
The lesson that is available is that before you can solve a problem, you must admit you have one. Wanda Sykes is a fresh Moses, and the GOP is a startled lost tribe, but there it is, the choice: Make bricks and haul stones for no purpose other than tombs to Ronald Reagan, or get up and walk away from the priests of denial.
John Batchelor is radio host of the John Batchelor Show in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles.