10 Feb., 2016
I just got a call from a Dutch morning TV show asking “Is tonight’s Dutch Press Correspondents’ Dinner a good idea? And will it be a success?” My quick answer is this: If you keep smearing the thing before you’ve even seen it, then the answer is probably NO. Now yes, I’ve been asked to contribute some jokes for Rutte’s comedy routine. I doubt anything will make it in. But if you hear the one about Geert Wilders being voted “Politician of the Year 1933,” that’s mine.
The fact is that a Dutch Press Correspondents’ Dinner is potentially a brilliant idea. Who wouldn’t want a roast of Dutch politics, with the politicians in the room? And it’s potentially a rebuttal roast of Dutch media as well. Who wouldn’t want to point out that the whole thing – from the Law-and-Order Minister resigning to the riots over refugee centers – is a parody of itself? This is a dialogue that needs to happen. It’s a ritual that needs to be adopted.
Will Prime Minister Mark Rutte really go through with it? Make no mistake: it’s a high-wire act. In the US, the WHPCD (White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner) offers unofficial moments that can become the official defining moment of a presidency. Who can forget George W. Bush failing to understand that Stephen Colbert was making fun of him? How can I unwatch Bush clowning around looking for ‘those Weapons of Mass Destruction?’
WATCH: Bush Where are those WMD’s?
The WHPCD can make your presidency too. Barack Obama has sometimes gotten more laughs than the keynote comedian. Last year he invited the character of “Luther the Anger Translator” onstage – and then joined in with him. The result was a purely cathartic moment, with ‘No Drama’ Obama venting some blisteringly direct criticism of his political detractors. He yelled at them about everything from the Republicans’ government shutdown to their climate change denial. This was the moment Dad finally lost his temper and yelled at us. This is what America had been anticipating for 7 years.
Will the first-ever Dutch Press Correspondents’ Dinner achieve such heights? It doesn’t have to. It’s enough to have a camera on Mark Rutte while the very sharp Dolf Jansen sets his teeth in. And Rutte himself is going to make a speech. From what I hear, he’s very very very nervous about the whole thing. He was very careful about what goes in and what doesn’t. Jokes about Rutte being single are okay; jokes about Rutte being a mama’s boy are out. Jokes about setting him up with actress Halina Reijn, okay. But will he talk about the media? About Dutch politics. And I hope they’ll space a moment for European politics as well.
DUTCH LEADERSHIP in EU
In case you haven’t noticed, the Netherlands is hosting the EU presidency for the first half of 2016. It’s a platform for declaring your agenda in Europe. It’s a chance to frame the debate on the big issues like Brexit and the refugee crisis. And it says a lot about Mark Rutte that he has gone out of his way to say as little as possible on anything. The Press Correspondents’ Dinner is Rutte’s chance to tease himself about it. Maybe he could say “I remember too well what happened the last time we hosted an international event, like the Nuclear Security Summit. It was the first time we got Obama into the country, and I had to start talking about how I’m trying for days to get the black paint off my face. Now I’m still trying to get the egg off my face.”
And if Rutte is smart, he might use humor to defuse the Ukraine referendum coming up in April. It’s basically a chance for populist Eurosceptic groups to stick their thumb in the eye of an EU treaty – while Rutte is hosting the EU presidency. It’s a lot like the referendum the Netherlands had the last time they hosted the EU presidency in 2004. That time it was about an EU Constitution. Rutte might say something like, “Basically, any time you combine the words referendum and EU, this country votes NO.”
Yes it’s a lot of pressure, but there’s a real opportunity for Prime Minister Rutte to use humor to forward his political agenda. If Rutte’s leadership on the EU stage is any indication, he’ll probably find a way to play it safe.