12:01am

Fri January 20, 2012
Monkey See

Stephen Colbert Wants You To Know: That's Definitely Not His SuperPAC

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 11:06 am

Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert is running for president. He's parodying the process — including, now, superPACS — in the same way he has parodied cable news. He's getting plenty of attention, but to really look into his political practical joke, I needed to go upstairs and find Peter Overby, NPR's man on campaign finance. I warned him it would seem like a dumb question, but I needed his help. What, exactly, is a superPAC?

"Welcome to my world," he told me. "It's nuts. It's the craziest situation in political money that I've seen in the something like 20 years I've been covering this." He said that for the first time this past year, super political action committees — superPACS — can raise unlimited money to run ads. Often, they're attack ads.

One such ad, produced by a superPAC run partly by old friends and staff of Newt Gingrich, twisted facts to the point that Gingrich was embarrassed by it. But because of superPAC rules, he couldn't make a phone call to get it off the air. He could only call a news conference and say he was "calling on" the superPAC to alter or pull the ads. But, he noted, "I cannot coordinate with them; I cannot communicate directly."

It's those strange superPAC rules about coordinating that Colbert is mocking right now. Colbert appeared on his show with the guy who was taking over his superPAC — maybe you've heard of Jon Stewart? — and their shared lawyer, who took them together through a careful discussion of the fact that they were definitely not coordinating. How much were they not coordinating? Well, the new name of the superPAC, once called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, is the Definitely Not Coordinating with Stephen Colbert SuperPAC.

They know they're on solid ground because their superlawyer is former Federal Election Commission Chairman Trevor Potter, who used to work for John McCain and now relishes illuminating the absurdly broad loopholes in the rules about coordination. On The Colbert Report, he explained the basics of running the superPAC.

"Trevor," Colbert asked Potter, "is being business partners [with Stewart] a problem?" "Being business partners does not count as coordination legally," Potter told him. "Great!" Colbert answered.

But Stewart had questions, too. Could he run ads attacking Colbert's opponents? As long as they didn't coordinate, the answer was yes. He wondered about staff that was connected to Colbert already. "Can I legally hire Stephen's current superPAC staff to produce those ads that will in no way be coordinated with Stephen?" "Yes," Potter told him.

And the totally-not-coordinating continued. Over on Stewart's The Daily Show, Potter sat in on a three-way call with Colbert and Stewart during which they assured him, "We're not coordinating." In unison.

The superPAC under Stewart has already run ads attacking Mitt Romney that said, among other things, "If Mitt Romney really believes corporations are people, then Mitt Romney is a serial killer."

"I had nothing to do with that ad," Colbert told George Stephanopoulos on ABC News. "I can't tell Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow what to do. It's not my superPAC, George, it's the superPAC of — I hope I'm pronouncing this correctly — Jon Stew-aire, I believe it's a soft 't' ..."

The ads aired in Charleston, S.C., on a TV station run by Rita Littles Scott. "We did not know it was Stephen Colbert for a while," she says of the power behind the ads. On the contrary, she says, the ads fit right in. And she says no one has called to complain about them. "In fact, we've not received any phone calls except from the media."

Scott says she appreciates how Colbert and Stewart are exposing flaws and absurdities in the superPAC system. That's not what another humorist was trying to do when he ran for governor of Texas a few years ago. Kinky Friedman was trying to win. He lost to Rick Perry.

"My definition of politics: 'poly' means more than one, and ticks are bloodsucking parasites," Friedman says. He says he doesn't really like Colbert's humor. But he says at least Colbert is taking risks, so Colbert has Friedman's endorsement for president of the United States. "Of course he does," says Friedman. "That's why we need Stephen Colbert in there — to stir things up, to be a troublemaker. I very much approve of that. That's what Jesus was."

That's an analogy that would doubtless please candidate Stephen Colbert.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert is running for president of South Carolina. He's not actually on the ballot for tomorrow's primary. It's all part of Colbert's parody of the process, the same way he's parodying cable news. Recently, superPACS have fallen under his satirical scrutiny. NPR arts reporter Neda Ulaby looked into this political practical joke.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: For this I needed to go upstairs and find Peter Overby, NPR's man on campaign finance.

What is a superPAC?

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Welcome to my world. It's nuts. It's the craziest situation in political money that I've seen in something like the 20 years I've been covering this.

ULABY: Peter said for the first time this past year, super political action committees can raise unlimited money to run ads - often attack ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: A group of corporate raiders, led by Mitt Romney, more ruthless than Wall Street.

ULABY: That ad was produced by a superPAC run partly by old friends and staff of Newt Gingrich. It twisted facts and embarrassed him. But because of rules forbidding coordination between candidates and superPACS, he couldn't make a phone call to get it off the air. He had to call a press conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

NEWT GINGRICH: I'm calling on the superPAC. I cannot coordinate with them. I cannot communicate directly.

ULABY: It's the SuperPAC rules about coordinating that Stephen Colbert's mocking right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

STEPHEN COLBERT: We're not coordinating.

JON STEWART: Coordinating.

ULABY: That's Stephen Colbert and the guy who runs his superPAC, Jon Stewart, on the phone together with a lawyer they share. Apparently, that's legal. They hired a super lawyer, Trevor Potter, who used to work for John McCain. Now he seems to relish illuminating the absurdly broad loopholes in coordination.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

COLBERT: Trevor, is being business partners a problem?

TREVOR POTTER: Being business partners does not count as coordination, legally.

COLBERT: Great!

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ULABY: And when Stewart took over Colbert's superPAC, so it would be totally independent, he wondered...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

STEWART: Can I legally hire Stephen's current superPAC staff, to produce these ads that will be in no way coordinated with Stephen?

POTTER: Yes.

ULABY: The superPAC, called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, ran ads also attacking Mitt Romney.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: As head of Bain Capital, he bought companies, carved them up and got rid of what he couldn't use. If Mitt Romney really believes...

MITT ROMNEY: Corporations are people, my friend.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Then Mitt Romney is a serial killer.

COLBERT: I had nothing to do with that ad.

ULABY: Stephen Colbert with George Stephanopoulos on ABC News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABC NEWS INTERVIEW)

COLBERT: I can't tell Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow what to do. It's not my superPAC, George. It's the superPAC of - I hope I'm pronouncing this correctly - Jon Stewart.

ULABY: The ads aired in Charleston, South Carolina, on a TV station run by Rita Littles Scott.

RITA LITTLES SCOTT: We did not know it was Stephen Colbert for a while.

ULABY: She says the ads fit right in. And she says no one has called to complain about them.

SCOTT: In fact, we've not received any phone calls, except from the media.

ULABY: Scott says she appreciates how Colbert and Stewart are exposing the flaws and absurdities in the superPAC system. That's not what another humorist was trying to do, when he ran for governor of Texas a few years ago. Kinky Friedman was trying to win. He lost to Rick Perry.

KINKY FRIEDMAN: My definition of politics - poly means more than one, and ticks are blood-sucking parasites.

ULABY: Friedman said he doesn't really like Stephen Colbert's humor. But he says, at least Colbert's taking risks. So Stephen Colbert has Kinky Freidman's endorsement for president of the United States.

FRIEDMAN: Of course he does. That's why we need Stephen Colbert in there - to stir things up, be a troublemaker. I very much approve of that. That's what Jesus was.

ULABY: An analogy that would doubtless please candidate Stephen Colbert.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.