Stephen Colbert surprises a Slate crowd, talks about Nixon’s ‘selfish evil’ and panda arousal

Colbert, Plotz, Bazelon and Dickerson at the 92Y Tribeca. (Reid Pillifant)
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At a live taping of Slate's Political Gabfest at the 92nd Street Y in Tribeca on Thursday night, Slate editor David Plotz ceded his turn in the podcast's "cocktail chatter" segment to an unidentified man in the front row.

"It's Colbert!" said one woman in the crowd, as Stephen Colbert, in a North Face jacket and button-up shirt, took a seat on the left side of the stage, alongside Plotz and his co-hosts, Emily Bazelon and John Dickerson.

The crowd broke out into sustained applause and whistles, with a brief chant of "STEPHEN! STEPHEN! STEPHEN!" from a handful of women towards the back of the sold-out room.

"Don't be nervous," Plotz told him, introducing Colbert as "our original drummer."

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"I'm the Pete Best," said Colbert, who told the crowd that he had wanted to stop by a Gabfest taping for years.

"But I have shows—my stupid show—most of the nights you guys are in town, but this is the first night you've been here and my show's been dark," he said.

The Comedy Central host proclaimed himself a big fan of the podcast, saying he listens every week, and even re-listens to old shows, including one where Dickerson predicted that the new presidential candidate Rick Perry "could very well blow up on the launch pad." (Though Colbert also quoted Lord of the Rings and told Dickerson he was "elvish" for qualifying his prediction by saying Perry might do well.)

Colbert did, in fact, come prepared with a subject for cocktail chatter, a conceit that involves picking a recent story that you'd be inclined to bring up after a few cocktails.

"I have a, a—I have a, a,—I have a chatter," Colbert said, "and that is about Richard Nixon, who is my president."

Colbert said he's 48 years old now, which makes him just old enough to remember Nixon as president.

"Watergate is very vivid to me, because it interrupted 'The Munsters,'" he said. 

"I was fascinated with Nixon as a child and I'm the youngest of 11 children, so my older brothers and sisters would explain to me why Watergate was important. Why it was important that I couldn't watch the 'Beverly Hillbillies,' instead I had to watch Senator Sam Ervin, with those eyebrows, being just a country lawyer asking for answers.

"So I despair that people forget Nixon's crimes. And I don't mean just Watergate, which has a sexiness to it with bugging and that kind of stuff, but the war crimes of Nixon, I despair that people forget those. Especially now with the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War having come and gone."

The peg for Colbert's chatter was the release of some new tapes from the Lyndon Johnson library that appear to confirm that Nixon prolonged the Vietnam War by quietly promising foreign ambassadors a better peace deal if he was elected president in 1968.

"L.B.J. is heard saying, 'Our friend in California, the Republican nominee, seems to be working on both sides, of the North and the South, to keep these peace talks from happening,'" said Colbert in a slightly LBJ-tinged accent. "And he says on the recordings, 'This is probably treason. But I'm not going to tell anybody, because then they'd find out I'm bugging the ambassadors' phones.'"

The crowd laughed along as he delivered that punchline and the next one: "But he tells [Hubert] Humphrey, and Humphrey says, 'No need, I got this one.'" 

Colbert said Nixon's deception "led to the deaths of tens of thousands of peoples, shattered the trust of the American people to the American military establishment, to trusting the president, and changed the—your people, your relationship to the president forever.

"And the depth of his selfish evil musn't be forgotten. Because while he's not the only one, he's the Ur for me." 

Colbert referenced a recent poll that said only a bare majority of Americans—57 percent—believe the Vietnam War was a mistake.

After Colbert was done talking Nixon, Plotz admitted he did have his own chatter: "the ultimate panda story," about attempts to use pornography to arouse lackadaiscal pandas into procreating.

"Was this straight panda sex?" Colbert asked. "Or was it daring panda sex, like role play? You be an ocelot and I'll be a chimp." 

After that, Colbert retired back to his front-row seat and mostly listened as the panel took a dozen or so questions from the crowd.

But when one attendee asked the panel to assess the biggest bullies in politics—Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Chuck Schumer and Barney Frank were all floated—a familiar voice piped up from the front row:

"Colbert!"