John Stewart is the most respected name in news. Seriously. He probably shouldn’t be, but he is. Young liberals and liberal-leaning people (and by young, I’m thinking from college up to the 40’s, that most desirable of demographics) form their impressions of the political landscape almost entirely through him. They think he’s smart and demanding, and most importantly that he doesn’t have an agenda besides being an entertainer, which frees him from the mire the rest of the news networks are stuck in. He doesn’t have the same kind of credibility with older people, but it doesn’t matter: the older generation seems to be stuck in the same mire the networks are—clinging to a dying nightly news model, or drifting towards Fox.
Stewart is also kind of a psychological bully. I was geeked to see President Obama on the Daily Show Wednesday night, because I was wondering—1)how critical Stewart would be, and 2)who’d come out looking like the teacher, and who the pupil. Television interviews are confrontational by nature. Even an innocuous appearance by an actor on David Letterman usually turns into a kind of a power play. (look at Joaquin Phoenix’s 2009 spot—he tries to demand attention with his crazy demeanor, and Letterman slyly counters by attempting to make him look ridiculous and petulant) Stewart’s always in control of his interviews, and even when he’s being interviewed, and will only cede control when he wants to—he’ll do it occasionally for entertainment people when they’re being really entertaining. The Tracy Morgan 2009 interview comes to mind. For political people he almost never cedes control. The only instance I can recall from the recent past is Bill Clinton’s appearance last year, when Clinton was listing solutions to the economic malaise which seemed so groundbreaking and certain to succeed he had the entire audience, including Stewart, in a kind of hopeful trance.
There are two keys to Stewart’s uncanny ability to assert himself. First, he’s really, really funny. It’s generally sarcastic humor, which is supposed to be the lowest form, but it’s a sarcasm pointed right at the heart of his opponent’s weakness, and delivered with immediate and deadly force. It’s a smart bomb programmed to hit hypocrisy, except its also funny—a smart funny bomb. Second, he’s a classic profile in bully-ism. He demands everything he asserts get respect, and if anyone pushes back he only knows how to elevate the conflict. In this respect he’s actually a fairly unreasonable person. Look at all of the interviews he’s done with Republicans over the years. Most of them are very cordial, but only because the Republican refuses to confront him, smartly understanding there is no way to win. Stewart is too smart, too funny, and most importantly too aware of his advantage—he’s a clown who’s also a pundit, and for this same reason people will always think he’s the one speaking truth to power. (But consider, on The Daily Show, usually the very opposite is true—Stewart is always the power) Stewart has always defended his own show, when faced with criticism that he trivializes news, on the grounds that it is comedy, that it follows puppet shows or cartoons. But then what authority does he have to tear apart people who have built careers in politics? (The next time John McCain bangs heads with him, I would suggest the following rejoinder: “Financial reform? Who the hell do you think you are? You used to host MTV Spring Break Rocks. Shut the f*** up.”)
Back to the Obama interview: Stewart was pretty tough on him. He questioned the timidity of the administration, whether they had offered something audacious in the campaign only to go back to business as usual. Obama was as eloquent and persuasive as usual, but he seems, to a certain extent, to have fallen victim to the kind of safe retreat-to-the-party-line attitude which makes it impossible to sit through interviews with politicians these days. He still honestly answers questions that are asked, but I wish he’d be a little more ambitious with his answers. Maybe that’s part of what is driving Stewart crazy about him.
But ultimately, the position of Stewart and liberals like him towards Obama is unfair. I think what they wanted was for Obama to declare himself the new sheriff in town, and use his newfound Congressional majorities to push his mandates through, in pure and unadulterated form. Part of why the administration didn’t was a calculation of the response—they knew Obama’s name, background, and skin color was going to engender a powerful backlash, and they wanted to do everything in their power to diminish it. So they bargained, and made concessions, and tried like hell to work with the Republicans. Okay, so the soft-pedaling didn’t work: Republicans tried to shut down government to make the president look bad, and the Tea Party happened anyways.
But the bigger reason the administration didn’t adopt a scorched-earth policy was, in my opinion, that they didn’t believe that was the policy they’d been elected to pursue. Americans still don’t want completely, or even mostly, socialized medicine. We still want our taxes as low as the government can make them, without weakening itself to the point of ineffectiveness. We still value personal liberty, even when we pay a cost in general welfare. The aspect of the Tea Party which is wrong, which, depending on which agents are playing it up, may be downright evil, is the assumption that Obama, because he is a black man with a Kenyan father and an elite East Coast education, wants America to be a socialist state. This is fear-mongering at its lowest, and if ever far-right movements want me to take them seriously they need to shed this part of their agenda. But the actual political developments they fear echo the sentiments of most Americans, I think. (I, being a fairly strong liberal, don’t happen to be one of them).
So honestly, I don’t know whether Stewart has some kind of hidden strategy in mind when he expresses disappointment with Obama, but I can’t imagine he’ll wake up feeling very good in the morning when he realizes the Democrats have lost majorities in both houses, and Obama’s job has suddenly become twice as hard. It may be time to just support the guy.