Sunday night I tweeted, as Jon Stewart won his I’m-not-even-making-this-up ninth consecutive Emmy for Best Variety Show or whatever, that “Jon Stewart is like 63% of the way to being the guy he started out mocking. Maybe 64%.” And then today I stumbled across this, a Tom Junod profile of Stewart from next month’s Esquire that makes the case far better than I possibly could.
The thing is full of great lines, including the one I quoted this morning, and the one about how
even when Stewart’s a dick, he is never the dick. It is Stewart’s unique talent for coming across as decent and well-meaning when he’s bullying and hectoring and self-righteous. And this is because his talent is not just for comedy and not just for media criticism or truth-telling; it’s for being — for remaining — likable.
The bit about why nobody ever does a Jon Stewart impression is right on the money too. Read the whole piece, but the takeaway is this: Jon Stewart’s public persona is profoundly disingenuous, and ultimately toxic to American political discourse.
But there’s one part of the piece that I’d quibble with, and it’s the passage on Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, held in DC on the weekend before the 2010 midterm elections:
Three days before a crucial election, Jon Stewart had stood in America’s most symbolic public space and given a speech to two hundred thousand people. The speech wasn’t about his need to be a player or his need for power or his need for influence. It wasn’t about getting out the vote or telling people to vote in a certain way. It was about Jon Stewart — about his need for another kind of out. For years, his out had been his comedy. Now it was his sincerity — his evenhandedness, his ability to rise above politics, his goodness. And three days later, when the side he didn’t even say was his side was routed in the midterms, he pretty much proved his point. He was no player. He had no political power. He’d proven he was beyond all that by presiding over the biggest celebration of political powerlessness in American history.
There’s nothing incorrect here, but there’s one pair of dots that Junod doesn’t quite connect, and it’s this:
By holding that rally on that day, Stewart took two hundred thousand of his most political fans out of the game on electoral fieldwork’s biggest weekend. The kind of folks who would show up to a Jon Stewart rally are pretty much exactly the kind of folks who would knock on doors for local candidates in the run-up to an off-year election. And what did Stewart do? He gave them a reason not to.
If you believe in the political process, if you believe in civic engagement, if you believe in local communities, if you believe in reforming America from the ground up, the last thing you do is hold a huge fake rally for politics dorks in Washington DC on the weekend before the midterms. I mean, come on.
I used to love Jon Stewart. But that’s when he really lost me.