Stephen Colbert came to the Federal Election Commission on Thursday as a walking and talking funhouse mirror, utterly distorting and strangely clarifying American politics at the same time.
Comedy Central’s mock conservative pundit skewered the campaign finance system more effectively than any government watchdog or muckraking journalist by launching his own political “Super PAC’’ committee. The underlying backdrop: Citizens United, the landmark Supreme Court case that allows unlimited corporate and special interest money to flow directly to campaign advertising.
"If there’s more money in our elections, there’s more freedom in our elections," proclaimed Colbert, holding fistfuls of cash and ducking into a black Cadillac Escalade in front of the institution that enforces federal election law. His sidewalk pronouncements came after fans packed the usually almost-empty FEC hearing room where commissioners granted permission for Viacom, the parent company behind "The Colbert Report," to create advertisements for his independent-expenditure political action committee without having to disclose them as a contribution.
It was the latest episode in Colbert's long-running and elaborate spoof of the American elections system, aided and abetted by Trevor Potter, a former FEC chairman who is serving as the comedian's lawyer. On his show Wednesday night, Colbert promised that his Super PAC would produce "irresponsible advertising" to compete with the ads being aired by actual campaign committees.
At the FEC, it was impossible to say where reality and politics began and satire and comedy ended. As for the actual hearing? “It was super tame, and at times kind of boring,’’ said 17-year-old Zoe McDermott of Bethesda, Md., who arrived two hours early to get a seat inside. "There was a lot of legalese and Colbert didn’t say much at all."
The show didn’t start – or did it? – until Colbert emerged from the FEC in a dark suit and declared he would begin accepting donations immediately. Dozens of fans clamored to hand over their credit cards or stuff cash into navy tote bags carried by Colbert’s staff. Receipts? Please. Donors got their hands stamped like patrons at Chuck E. Cheese’s.
“Sometimes we fail to see the impact of something until someone points out how ridiculous it is,’’ said 23-year-old Daniel Ferguson of Silver Spring, Md., who was wearing a T-shirt with Jesus Christ holding a cross-shaped lightsaber.
One of the eager donors was 55-year-old Dave Will, who held his bike helmet in one hand and a video camera in the other. He said the prospect of Colbert’s political committee had likely discouraged some potential Republican presidential candidates from entering the race. He wasn’t kidding.
"He can make anybody look like a fool," Will said of Colbert. “Hopefully the dollar I gave will carry into a big change for a political system."
But Colbert’s appearance on a week in which independent and largely unregulated groups launched television ads for and against President Obama’s reelection underscored the wild-West atmosphere surrounding the 2012 election. Rachel Lewis of Public Citizen, a good government group, came to the FEC with $35 worth of dollar bills stapled to her black tank top. “Money should not equal speech in our democracy,’’ she said, without a touch of irony.