As soon as Michelle Wolf finished delivering her blistering White House Correspondents’ Dinner roast of the Trump administration and the members of the press that cover it, she was, not surprisingly, criticized for much of what she said. Oddly, however, a lot of that criticism zeroed in on something that Michelle Wolf did not actually say: a joke about Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s appearance.
After Wolf’s scathing, unapologetic, and often funny remarks, several prominent journalists called her out for mocking the White House press secretary because of her looks. Maggie Haberman, the New York Times White House correspondent, weighed in with this tweet.
MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski — whose engagement to her Morning Joe co-host, Joe Scarborough, Wolf described in her speech as “like when a #MeToo works out” — voiced a similar concern.
Like-minded criticisms were sounded from other corners of the political Twitterverse, causing a number of people — including New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum, Kumail Nanjiani, and, less importantly, me — to express confusion followed by outrage. I was baffled and irritated by this particular critique of Wolf’s performance because, again, and I cannot stress this enough, Michelle Wolf did not criticize Sarah Huckabee Sanders, or any other woman, about her appearance. Wolf herself even clarified this point earlier today on Twitter.
The two jokes that seemed to irk critics were her Handmaid’s Tale dig — “I have to say I’m a little starstruck. I love you as Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale” — and the aforementioned line about Sanders’s smoky eye, which went like this: “I actually really like Sarah. I think she’s very resourceful. She burns facts, and then she uses the ash to create a perfect smoky eye. Maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s lies. It’s probably lies.”
Neither of these jokes are about Sanders’s appearance. The first one suggests that, like the character Ann Dowd plays on the Hulu series based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, Sanders acts as a complicit oppressor on behalf of an authoritarian government. The other joke riffs on a Maybelline slogan to highlight the fact that Sanders lies to the American people on a regular basis on behalf of her boss. You can be offended by either of these insinuations, but at least be offended by what Wolf actually insinuated.
For the record, when Wolf took aim at White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, she didn’t say a single thing about her appearance either. Instead, the focus was on Conway’s dishonesty: “You guys have got to stop putting Kellyanne on your shows,” Wolf told a ballroom filled with cable news producers, anchors, and reporters who repeatedly put Kellyanne Conway on their shows. “All she does is lie. If you don’t give her a platform, she has nowhere to lie. It’s like that old saying: If a tree falls in the woods, how do we get Kellyanne under that tree? I’m not suggesting she gets hurt. Just stuck. Stuck under a tree.”
It would have been easy for Wolf to take a cheap shot at either of these women for some superficial offense, like the way they dress or talk. As Nussbaum points out, that’s what Trump would have done, and has done on many occasions. But nothing about what Michelle Wolf did on Saturday night was easy. It was hard, harder even than the truthtelling that Stephen Colbert did to President George W. Bush’s face at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. True, Colbert was dressing down the commander in chief in his actual presence, something Wolf didn’t have the opportunity to do since Trump, for the second year in a row, couldn’t muster the courage to show up for this event. But Colbert could at least hide behind his alter ego as the conservative host of The Colbert Report. Wolf had to go out there as only the fourth female comedian to perform solo at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, drop a bunch of truth bombs, then sit back down with no shield to provide cover.
She wasn’t always successful. Her first joke about abortion, for example, was a groaner: “[Mike Pence] thinks abortion is murder, which, first of all, don’t knock it till you try it. And when you do try it, really knock it. You know, you got to get that baby out of there.” But Wolf’s swipes at the media were genuinely hilarious. Honestly, the bit that made me laugh the hardest was the one she did about MSNBC: “MSNBC’s news slogan is, ‘This is who we are.’ Guys, it’s not a good slogan. ‘This is who we are’ is what your mom thinks the sad show on NBC is called. “Did you watch This Is Who We Are this week? Someone left on a Crock-Pot and everyone died.”
Not surprisingly, though, it’s the jabs that Wolf threw at Sanders and other Trump staffers that are getting criticized today, not just because some of them were funny but because they legitimately stung. To acknowledge what actually made the smoky eye line funny meant that some of the people in that ballroom had to reflect on the fact that they either lie, enable liars, or act nicely to liars because that’s what they sometimes have to do to get the information the public deserves to know. That’s the sort of situation that makes people itchy.
But here’s the thing: If the worst thing that happens to you while you’re working for Trump is that a woman from The Daily Show says a few mean things about you while you’re wearing a nice dress, eating a free meal, and drinking some wine, you are still having a better day than a hell of a lot of people in this country. Also, this is part of the job when you’re a public servant. When Don Imus addressed the Radio and TV Correspondents Association back in 1996, he made all kinds of controversial comments about President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton, both of whom were sitting right there on the dais. Imus was not nearly as incisive or funny as Wolf was last night — one of the biggest laughs he got was a joke about Sally Struthers being fat, the kind of punching-down humor that Wolf was accused of committing but didn’t. The Clintons took all of his pot shots, everyone fretted afterward about how inappropriate it was, and then life in Washington moved on.
Life in Washington will move on from this, too. But before it does, I want to pause and make sure it’s clear why I and others reacted the way we did to the backlash against Wolf’s speech. It wasn’t because the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is so important to our nation — I’m guessing most of the country, if not the vast majority, has no idea it even happened last night — or because Wolf is the most brilliant comedian who’s ever lived. I thought she was pretty funny, but that’s not really the point. The issue is that those who expressed shock about her performance could not see the obliviousness and hypocrisy in their responses.
Take the lead item in Mike Allen’s Axios newsletter, which noted, in a critical tone, that Wolf “made several uses of a vulgarity that begins with ‘p,’ in an audience filled with Washington officials, top journalists and a few baseball legends (Brooks Robinson, Tony La Russa and Dennis Eckersley).” The word pussy has become part of the national lexicon because Donald Trump said it in an Access Hollywood video. It’s since been uttered in news broadcasts, printed in newspapers, and spoken in an episode of Roseanne that aired at 8 p.m. on network TV. The idea that Wolf is vulgar because she said it in a room full of “top journalists,” while possibly sullying the virginal ears of the great Brooks Robinson, is utterly ridiculous.
But what’s even worse than misguided pearl-clutching is the fact that Wolf is getting criticized for things that she never even said. It’s not unlike the experience that plays out when Trump and his staff, including Sanders, peddle “alternative facts” to the public: If you’re paying attention to the actual facts, it makes you question your own sense of reality. This is why, after seeing the criticism of Wolf’s jokes about Sanders, I felt like I had to rewatch that portion of her speech again because surely I must have missed something.
On a night designed to celebrate the importance of journalism, somehow, what some people heard was a jab about a smoky eye. They’re missing the underlying point of Wolf’s comedy: That what should concern every American are the smokescreens that Sarah Huckabee Sanders and other members of the Trump administration create, and that make it so hard for White House correspondents to uncover the actual truth.