Ex-FEMA chief putting himself in `Colbert' hot seat


Michael D. Brown, former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is tired of being caricatured as an incompetent government appointee who stood by while the Gulf Coast was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

During an appearance before a Senate committee last month, Brown refused to accept all the blame for the government's slow response, insisting that he had warned the White House of the storm's disastrous potential.

Now he's embarking on the next step of his rehabilitation tour: He's going on The Colbert Report.

Tonight, Brown is scheduled to sit down with Stephen Colbert - who plays the bombastic, preening cable anchor on Comedy Central's 11:30 p.m. mock newscast - for an unpredictable interview in which the only thing the former federal official can count on is the likelihood of being embarrassed.

Why, after months of being fodder for late-night television comedians, is he willing to subject himself to such a public ordeal?

Brown acknowledges he had never heard of The Colbert Report until he was invited to be a guest. But after watching several episodes, he says, "I think I know what I'm in for.

"It's not mean-spirited humor, it's just good satire," Brown said in an interview last week. "I go in with my eyes open that they will do whatever they can to make fun of me. But I hope people see I'm human and a decent guy."

Nowadays, the real test for a public figure, especially with an image to mend, is to endure a heavy dose of ridicule at the hands of Colbert, whose parody of a pompous television pundit has attracted an impressive lineup of guests since the show premiered in October.

They don't come on to be flattered. New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, known for his crackdown on Wall Street shenanigans, made an appearance to plug his gubernatorial bid, only to have Colbert inquire whether he had been a tattletale as a child.

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California spent most of her interview shaking with horrified laughter as Colbert read aloud sex scenes from her new novel.

And when George Stephanopoulos visited the program, his host inquired whether ABC's short chief Washington correspondent needed to sit on a telephone book to reach the table.

With an average of 1.1 million viewers a night, the program gets solid if not spectacular ratings for a late-night cable show. But 40 percent of its audience is in the coveted 18- to 34-year-old age group, which means that The Colbert Report - like its lead-in, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, from which it was spun off - offers media figures and politicians valuable airtime in front of young viewers, even if they risk looking silly.

CBS anchor Bob Schieffer said Colbert had successfully bottled the spirit of the annual Gridiron dinner, a clubby inside-the-Beltway roast of major Washington figures, and given it broad appeal.

"I think it's part of the American redemption process now that you have to let people make fun of you a bit," said Schieffer, 69, who said jokingly on the program this month that most viewers of CBS Evening News were older than he was.

Emily Lazar, who books The Colbert Report guests, said she was in discussions with a raft of likely 2008 presidential candidates, including Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Democratic Sens. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and John F. Kerry, the 2004 candidate, from Massachusetts.

Of course, offering oneself as Colbert's target is not a risk-free enterprise. Bristle at his needling, and you look like a bad sport. Crack jokes, and it can seem like you're trying too hard.

Brown said his friends and family had two reactions to his decision to go on the program: "Either, `That's so cool,' or, `Oh, my God,' their head in their hands."

Still, such is Colbert's cachet that he was invited to headline the annual White House correspondents' dinner in late April.

But Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, a California Democrat, said going on the show has little downside.

During her interview, Colbert asked her to say, "I took money from Jack Abramoff" in Spanish - then proceeded to grill her about why she accepted money from the indicted lobbyist, dismissing her protestations.

"You do have to have the ability to laugh at yourself," she said.

Still, she said she was surprised to hear that someone like Brown - who was such a public target after Hurricane Katrina - would agree to go on the program.

"He's brave, man," Sanchez said. "You've got to give him credit."

The former FEMA director said he hoped to hold his own. Although "not a comedian by any stretch," Brown said he does have an ability to jest - a fact he said was lost on critics who assailed him for e-mailing his aides about his wardrobe during the storm.

"I do not believe I'm a `fashion god,'" Brown said. "That was my dry sense of humor."

Matea Gold writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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