Editorial: Decency gets roasted

Editor’s note: In order to fully communicate the serious nature of this editorial, some quoted graphic language follows.

About a quarter of the way into her monologue at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on April 28, and after a particularly crude joke, comedian Michelle Wolf stated, as an aside, “You should have done more research before you got me to do this.”

We can’t help but think she was right.

For years, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner has been known as a hot ticket in Washington, where comedic “roasts” are expected, and everyone is fair game. Typically, it’s been all in good fun, while hit or miss on the funny. In 1997, before Jon Stewart was a star, he poked fun at Larry King and Madeleine Albright. In 2005, in a change in tradition, Laura Bush took to the podium in place of her husband, President George W. Bush, for a good-natured ribbing of her other half’s tendency to be in bed by 9 p.m. Even in 1944, Bob Hope made a wisecrack at the expense of Wendell Willkie, the Republican nominee of four years prior, on his perennial White House ambitions.

They haven’t always been a barrel of laughs — and, as at any roast, there are often downright uncomfortable moments — but there seemed to be an invisible barrier of decency not to be crossed.

But that was then, and this is a whole new now — a “now” where edgy comedy seems always to depend on an undercurrent of crass language and lewd punch lines. Wolf’s comments on abortion alone — in which she targeted Vice President Mike Pence for his pro-life stance — pushed her well over the line of common decency.

“Mike Pence is very anti-choice. He 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’ve got to get that baby out of there,” she said. “And yeah, sure, you can groan all you want. I know a lot of you are very anti-abortion, you know, unless it’s the one you got for your secret mistress.”

Despite their shocking content, it was not these comments for which she was most criticized by the mainstream media — in itself its own sad commentary on the cultural climate today. But “jokes” like this are despicable, and to not say so publicly would be a grave omission.

The blame, however, cannot be laid solely at Wolf’s feet. She is unfortunately a product of our time — a time in which vulgarity in public speech has become part and parcel of our political landscape, up to and including the president of the United States. A time when human life is so devalued that the “choice” to have an abortion is celebrated. A time when the inherent dignity of others, even in our words, is sadly and all too often ignored or rejected outright.

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe now in print or digital.

The argument has been made that Wolf was “fighting fire with fire” in our current political climate. But how refreshing would it have been if the organizers of the dinner, the White House Correspondents’ Association, had invested in a comedian who could have provoked laughter while rising above the vitriol and nastiness that has pervaded our political scene for the past several years? Sadly, that opportunity was lost.

This is not a partisan issue. It comes down to the very way that we relate to one another and how we speak to one another, no matter our political leaning. It comes down to the very words that we as a society deem to be acceptable or not. It comes down to common decency — which, that night in Washington, once again went up in flames.

OSV Editorial Board: Don Clemmer, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, York Young