It’s not unpatriotic to play nail to the chief

BELIEVE IT OR NOT, a little hate mail every now and then can be quite illuminating.

In this case, my thought crime involved favorable comments regarding this year’s Oscar telecast, during which Chris Rock — who, all told, was on camera less than Beyonce — dared aim a few jokes at President Bush.

In hindsight, I confess that my opinion might have been colored by the fact the show finished a half-hour earlier than last year — meaning I could be off deadline watching Turner Classic Movies that much sooner — and that I set extremely low expectations for televised award shows. (My favorite email came from a Rock fan that complained that the presentation was “boring and predictable” because of “the lame thank-yous, and awards to movies no one saw.” Um, duh.)

What truly struck me, though, were several missives that took umbrage over Rock’s fleeting remarks about President Bush, which were seized upon as another example of Hollywood’s contempt for red-state America. One accused the telecast of “denigrating our troops,” even though both Rock and Academy president Frank Pierson went out of their way to salute them.

This could be easily dismissed if it didn’t underscore a chilling mentality that has oozed into the discourse, where “respecting the presidency” has become code for saying the president can’t be lampooned, much less questioned or criticized. It’s a not-so-subtle attempt to stifle dissent, labeling unpatriotic anyone who doesn’t toe the line.

This isn’t to say that some criticism doesn’t become shrill and repetitive, as I recently suggested regarding the broadsides Frank Rich levels weekly from the incongruous confines of the New York Times “Arts & Leisure” section. Picture a casual Sunday-morning reader scanning the paper with his latte: “Let’s see, there’s a decline in provocative Off Broadway productions, dance choreography is becoming a lost art, HBO has another new series and, oh, apparently, Bush sucks.”

EVEN SO, DIE-HARD Bush backers have developed conveniently short memories, ignoring the long history of political and topical humor in Oscar shows and latenight chat. Distilled into the shorthand of TV comedy, Bush is depicted as a language-mangling dunce, in the same way Gerald Ford was an inept klutz, Jimmy Carter a bumbler who lusted after women in his heart, and Bill Clinton a gluttonous hillbilly who lusted in more tangible ways.

Granted, the arrows have grown more pointed than when Bob Hope ribbed Ike about his golf game, but what hasn’t? Moreover, it’s hard to imagine those responding so indignantly to Bush references have forgotten the litany of jokes directed at Clinton, which brought new meaning to the term “oral history.”

As for the scales currently being tilted against Bush, that can be attributed to the satirist’s inevitable tendency to afflict the powerful. With Republicans controlling every branch of government, who is “Saturday Night Live” supposed to mock, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid?

Still, such is the bile-filled climate that sycophants like Sean Hannity lambaste any Bush critic for “attacking the president” and gain access to top officials, while the mainstream press — more code, translated as “liberal,” but really indicating anyone who might ask a tough question — is kept at arm’s length.

As that noted philosopher Mel Brooks once observed, it’s good to be king, but along with the throne comes enduring ripostes from the likes of Rock, Jon Stewart, Letterman and Leno.

Rest assured, the Democrats will feel them too, assuming they ever win another election.

SPONSORSHIP’S SLIPPERY SLOPE: No, it isn’t an “SNL” sketch, despite sounding like the classic one where pitchmen compete to coin the most disgusting names for their product.

Yet on March 11, A&E will televise — and this is for real — something called “Smucker’s Stars on Ice 2005.” To which I can only say “Ew” and “Look out! Don’t slip on that stuff!”

Advertisers deserve sympathy given the whole commercial-zapping/TiVo challenge, but allowing sponsors to coil around programs has spiraled out of control in the sporting world and risks becoming particularly idiotic if marketers don’t recognize when their brand doesn’t lend itself to signature placement.

What’s next, the official “Cialis NASCAR Flag Is Up 500?” The “Tidy Bowl Iron Chef Challenge?” The mind boggles.

Sponsorship tie-ins are now a fact of life, but that doesn’t justify being stupid about them. Because as the Smucker’s folks have demonstrated, when you don’t think these things through, it’s easy to wind up in a jam.

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