It happens all too often: I’m on TV, cracking wise about something that’s happening in the wild and wacky world of Washington, and the anchor just doesn’t get it. The sarcasm goes right over his or her head. It can mean one of three things: I’m not funny, the person has had a humor-gland removal, or all of the above. One program moderator — who shall remain nameless, because I need the work — said to me on the air, “I never know whether you’re making a joke or not.” In fact, usually, it’s both. This can be a grimly absurd place.
Maybe there are too many people in power who fear they’ll be exposed as foolish. Perhaps that would explain the serious debate that has erupted over President Barack Obama’s appearance with Zach Galifianakis on the farcical Internet program “Between2Ferns.” For the benefit those among us who are not truly hip, the show is a parody of interviews as they appear on public-access television. Galifianakis is the out-there slovenly host who deadpans ridiculous and embarrassing questions of his star guests. This time, the star was Barack Obama. The White House decided it would be a good, albeit risky, venue to promote health-care sign-ups to the young-skewing audience.
It was phenomenal. Galifianakis was his usual mocking self, and Mr. Obama was a total match. He was hilarious; they both were. Plus, it clearly reached the 20- and 30-somethings.
But then the fun stopped. Out rushed the politicians and commentators to sniff about how this kind of thing demeans the presidency. Well, people, I don’t know how to break it to you, but it’s kind of difficult to demean any part of our political system these days. The participants have already turned it into slapstick.
Look no further than those in our national-security apparatus, particularly the ones in charge of the nation’s spying. I think it’s safe to call them the Gang That Couldn’t Spook Straight. One can only hope they’re embarrassed as all their Maxwell Smart stealthy adventures spill into public view.
The latest is that flare-up with Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein. If there was ever someone who has backed America’s intelligence efforts, it’s Sen. Feinstein. Even with Edward Snowden’s disclosures that the National Security Agency is prying into the private lives of every one of us, she has been there, backing the NSA and its higher-ups and saving her ire for Snowden. Many, and I’m among them, have criticized her for being an apologist. But now even she is attacking them. In a remarkable speech on the Senate floor, she charged that the Central Intelligence Agency had “violated the separation-of-powers principles embodied in the United States Constitution.” Pretty heavy criticism, I trust you’ll agree. She’s infuriated, she says, because operatives infiltrated the computers of committee investigators who were delving into the CIA torture of prisoners taken after 9-11. In response, the agency charged that it was the Senate people who had violated restrictions against snooping into certain documents, and turned the matter over to the Justice Department.
It’s turned into a dissing contest, with a lot of “he said, she said,” but isn’t it Congress that’s lawfully supposed to provide oversight of the intelligence community and not the other way around?
Meanwhile, Edward Snowden put out a statement criticizing Feinstein for regularly being such a staunch defender of the massive electronic surveillance, and trashing her for hypocrisy: “Suddenly it’s a scandal when a politician finds out the same thing happens to them.”
As for the allegations his people had spied on the Senate computers, CIA Director John Brennan told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, “Nothing can be farther from the truth” and “we wouldn’t do that.” Maybe, instead of Andrea, he should be interviewed by Zach Galifianakis.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN