How Many Stephen Colberts Are There?
By CHARLES McGRATH, The New York Times Magazine
Published: January 4, 2012
The new Colbert has crossed the line that separates a TV stunt from reality and a parody from what is being parodied. In June, after petitioning the Federal Election Commission, he started his own super PAC – a real one, with real money. He has run TV ads, endorsed (sort of) the presidential candidacy of Buddy Roemer, the former governor of Louisiana, and almost succeeded in hijacking and renaming the Republican primary in South Carolina. “Basically, the F.E.C. gave me the license to create a killer robot,” Colbert said to me in October, and there are times now when the robot seems to be running the television show instead of the other way around.
A voice-over at the end announced that the commercial had been paid for by an organization called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, which is the name of Colbert’s super PAC, an entity that, like any other super PAC, is entitled to raise and spend unlimited amounts of soft money in support of candidates as long as it doesn’t “coordinate” with them, whatever that means. Of such super-PAC efforts, Colbert said, “This is 100 percent legal and at least 10 percent ethical.”
Just as baffling as the Iowa corn ads – at least to the uninitiated – were some commercials Colbert produced taking the side of the owners during the recent N.B.A. lockout. These were also sponsored by Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, but they were “made possible,” according to the voice-over, by Colbert Super PAC SHH Institute. Super PAC SHH (as in “hush”) is Colbert’s 501(c)(4). He has one of those too – an organization that can accept unlimited amounts of money from corporations without disclosing their names and can then give that money to a regular PAC, which would otherwise be required to report corporate donations. “What’s the difference between that and money laundering?” Colbert said to me delightedly.
In the case of Colbert’s N.B.A. ads, the secret sugar daddy might, or might not, have been Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, who has appeared on the show and whom the ads call a “hero.” We’ll never know, and that of course is the point. Referring to the Supreme Court ruling that money is speech, and therefore corporations can contribute large sums to political campaigns, Colbert said, “Citizens United said that transparency would be the disinfectant, but (c)(4)’s are warm, wet, moist incubators. There is no disinfectant.”
“Aren’t lawyers allowed to have fun?” Potter asked me a few weeks ago, adding that he knew what he was signing up for by appearing on the show. He also said he thought that Colbert was serving a useful function. “I’m very careful not to ascribe motive to him – he can speak for himself,” he said. “I don’t know what he’s thinking. He can find the laws ironic or funny or absurd. But he’s illustrating how the system works by using it. By starting a super PAC, creating a (c)4, filing with the F.E.C., he can bring the audience inside the system. He can show them how it works and then leave them to conclude whether this is how it ought to work.”
Sponsored by Americans for a Better New York Times Magazine Tomorrow, Today.