“harper valley p.t.a.” – jeannie c. riley (1968)


I was a senior in high school when Stephen Colbert performed at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.  His show, The Colbert Report, had premiered the year prior and was a much-needed satirical partner to balance The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’s liberal stranglehold on the fake news circuit.  Colbert, a former Daily Show alum, played the character of a conservative blowhard television pundit (based on Bill O’Reilly) who would defend George W. Bush’s presidency by misappropriating facts to fit his own narrative and bias.  The character of Stephen Colbert was created as a satirical reflection of the rise of political punditry that presented opinion as facts and furthered uninformed partisanship that has continued to divide us over a decade later.

In 2006, Stephen Colbert wasn’t a household name yet.  So, not everyone was in on the joke yet.  Colbert was invited to perform that year by Mark Smith, the current president of the White House Press Corps Association, though Smith was admittedly unfamiliar with the comedian’s work.  While comedians have spoken or performed at the dinner since 1983, Colbert’s turn was the first time that a comedian spoke truth to power in their performance.

As with his television show, Colbert performed in character.  Colbert’s character is designed to sound like he is complimenting or praising you, but each comment is actually a criticism that exposes some negative quality about that person.  Nothing personal or superficial, but rather critiques on their lack of honesty, poor character, or penchant for hypocrisy.

At that dinner, Colbert feigned mock defense of Bush’s mismanagement of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, passing tax cuts that only benefitted the rich, and the lies that led us into the war in Iraq.  President Bush wasn’t the only target that night.  Colbert lampooned John McCain, Antonin Scalia, Jesse Jackson, and others in attendance as well.  While some of these jokes were taken with good humor, Colbert’s performance was met with a chilly reception with several of Bush’s aides walking out during the speech.  Colbert looked back on the event noting that “not a lot of people laughed in the front row” and that “no one was even making eye contact with me.”  The only person who approached Colbert to praise his performance was Justice Scalia.

The press heavily analyzed Colbert’s performance.  Many outlets called Colbert rude, unfunny, and that he was a bully bombed badly.  Others praised him for not pandering to insiders by doing insider jokes.  For the first time since 1983, the media coverage of the dinner was more focused on the comedian’s speech than the president.

While there was an alleged media blackout during the live airing of Colbert’s speech, it gained widespread popularity on the Internet.  Now, the whole world could see Colbert speak “truthiness to power” as many times as they wanted.  At a time when the American people were becoming increasingly disillusioned by their leaders in Washington for engaging in needless wars based on misinformation and lies, Colbert holding a mirror to those responsible for those lies was necessary, relevant, and a reinforcement of the American people to hold our leaders accountable.  This was the First Amendment in action and it was beautiful.

Twelve years later, in 2018, Michelle Wolf finds herself in the same situation Colbert did when she decided to use the White House Correspondent’s Dinner to speak truth to power and blast the lies and hypocrisy plaguing our country coming from the Trump White House and fueled by our media outlets.  In just under twenty minutes, Wolf tore into everyone in the room.  She called out members of the Trump administration for outright lying to the American people and criticized news outlets for putting Trump in power in pursuit of profits.

Wolf did what she was supposed as a comedian.  She told jokes.  However, she used the platform to criticize the institutions responsible for dividing the American public and furthering the delegitimization of our Republic.  Wolf called out Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the current White House Press Secretary, for lying to the media and the public.  She called out Ivanka Trump for furthering her own business interests at expense of women.  She called out President Trump for his sexist comments and assault allegations.  She called out members of the press for using their outlets to profit from the chaos generated from the Trump administration.  In other words, she did everything right.

Since her speech at the dinner, Wolf has faced heavy criticism for her performance.  While there are journalists, entertainers, and fans who praise Wolf’s performance, the negative reactions are overwhelming the positive ones.  Margaret Talev, the president of the White House Press Association, said the “program was meant to offer a unifying message about our common commitment to a vigorous and free press while honoring civility, great reporting and scholarship winners, not to divide people.  Unfortunately, the entertainer’s monologue was not in the spirit of that mission.”

Like Colbert did in 2006, Wolf was relying on her skills as a comedian to use the platform to make statements that needed to be heard.  While many may say her speech was rude, bullying, and inappropriate, I say that Wolf’s comments were relevant, necessary, and truthful.  This wasn’t just another comedian who was going make some jokes and take home a paycheck.  Wolf had something to say and her message was on point.

Naturally, the Trump administration and his supporters were outraged by Wolf’s comments.  Trump slammed the organization and tweeted that the dinner is “DEAD as we know it. This was a total disaster and an embarrassment to our great Country and all that it stands for.”  Conservative pundits hit social media and news talk shows to decry Wolf’s statements and shame liberals and Democrats for their alleged elitism.  Trump and his supporters like to pivot themselves as iconoclasts who don’t play the Washington game but rather fight for the working class and Wolf, an elitist liberal, was only there to be mean-spirited.

I am not surprised by the hypocrisy displayed by these conservative pundits and members of the Trump administration.  The Trump campaign was built on lies and hypocrisy.  Trump, during the campaign, suggested that Russia hack his opponent, advocated for the imprisonment of his opponent, threatened violence against protestors, verbally expressed he sexually assaulted women, and countless other things that illustrate that he, and his supporters, are unstable and dangerous.  For a political base that likes to deride their opponents as being “snowflakes” who can’t take a joke or the slightest bit of criticism, the conservatives are sure acting like a bunch of snowflakes over Wolf’s speech and they voted for the biggest snowflake of them all (Trump has skipped the dinner twice and is the first president to do so since Reagan was shot in 1981, but at least the Gipper called in).

I have no issues with any of the comments Wolf made during her speech.  Every comment was based on facts and were made against people in the public eye for legitimate reasons.  This was Wolf speaking truth to power and holding our political and media institutions accountable for creating the mess we currently find ourselves in.

Written by Tom T. Hall and originally record by Margie Singleton, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” became a huge hit for Jeannie C. Riley in 1968.  In the song, Riley tells the story of Mrs. Johnson who is a widowed woman with a teenage daughter.  One day, Mrs. Johnson’s daughter comes home with a note from the Harper Valley P.T.A. suggesting that Mrs. Johnson’s behavior and lifestyle is scandalous.  She’s accused of wearing miniskirts, drinking too much, and running around with men. So, what does Mrs. Johnson do?  She goes to the next P.T.A. meeting which is happening that very night.

Dressed in a miniskirt a the P.T.A. meeting, Mrs. Johnson puts everyone there on blast.  She calls out Bobby Taylor for begging her for dates, Mr. Baker for his secretary leaving town, Shirley Thompson for her gin-soaked breath, and others for engaging in the very same behaviors they accuse Mrs. Johnson of.  She declares the whole lot as hypocrites which they certainly are.

“Harper Valley P.T.A.” is a feminist anthem about calling truth to power against authority figures who don’t live by the same standards they demand from others.  Like Mrs. Johnson, Michelle Wolf put everyone on blast. Wolf even continues doing so.  When members of the press call her uncivil but don’t put the president on blast for sexist comments, they’re just living in a little Peyton Place and they’re all Washington hypocrites.

Of all the criticism I have read about Wolf’s performance, I am most disappointed by the negative reactions from members of our press.  Especially, from members of the liberal press.  While Trump’s reactions were expected, seeing Wolf by journalists has dangerous effects on our First Amendment right to free speech.  Talev’s statement that the statement is meant to unify suggests that the American people cannot hold our press to the same standards that press holds for our political leaders.  Our press demands a commitment to integrity from our leaders.  However, when a comedian is invited to give a speech to a bunch of insiders and doesn’t play ball the way they want her to, suddenly that demand for integrity goes out the window.

Wolf is right that the press helped elevate Trump to the presidency and has since been complicit in the problems our countries face due to partisan vitriol.  Wolf used her platform to hold them accountable and they just couldn’t take it.  When I read statements from journalists from NBC, MSNBC, The New York Times, and CNN reduce Wolf’s statements to uncivil insults, it is hypocrisy at its purest.  These journalists demand integrity and transparency, but refuse to give the same when there are legitimate reasons to do so.  When the journalists fail to respect the First Amendment, that is when we start to lose it. So, I congratulate Michelle Wolf for socking it to the WHCA.