Jon Stewart took over as the host of The Daily Show in 1999, and it has been an incredible 16 years. As Stewart sat at the helm of an increasingly popular program, the global popularity of the United States hurtled in the opposite direction. The goodwill that the United States had generated in the wake of 9/11 evaporated as the Bush administration pressed ahead with disastrous invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. The speed of the national metamorphosis from victim to victimizer was astonishing. The Bush presidency also became a point of intellectual ridicule: the world looked at George W. Bush and saw everything that was supposed to be wrong with Americans: they were boorish, macho, unworldly and proudly anti-intellectual. It wasn’t fair (to Americans), of course, but that’s not the point.
Now, I am calling Stewart an “ambassador,” and do so with my tongue in my cheek. But not entirely. In all honesty, I would be hard pressed to name someone from the US who did much more to restore the international image of the US than Stewart. Not in the corridors of power, of course, but in the office hallways, university dormitories and living rooms of Paris, Brisbane, Cape Town and Buenos Aires. Yes, the US has great authors, thinkers and radicals. We always have. We have Noam Chomsky, for example, but Chomsky is expected to be serious. And, one would be hard pressed to argue that (a) many Americans actually read Chomsky, or (b) that Chomsky in any way represents the “average American.” What the US needed was a popular champion.
Good diplomacy isn’t about the long-winded, stern lecture. It isn’t about boring people with righteousness. It isn’t about the overt threat. It’s about the handshake. The nice dinner. The word in the ear. The look in the eye. The compliment followed by the critical observation.
Stewart’s international diplomacy was simple but effective: through humor and examples everyone could understand, he showed the rest of the world that wit, irony and intelligence could sell in the US. He showed the rest of the world that a lot of people in the US actually had edge, and wouldn’t just roll over and die in the face of overwhelming political, religious, corporate and media power. Stewart also symbolized something else: the political and intellectual evolution of US popular culture. US television had always been globally popular, but Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert reminded us of the critical power of mixing humor and politics. It could be childish and superficial, but Stewart was on five days a week so failures and weaknesses were inevitable.
As the Bush years faded and the Obama years began, many felt that Stewart was on the decline because he had lost his comedic muse. And, indeed, Stewart was far too easy on an Obama administration that not only produced far less than it had promised, but that actually out-Bushed the Bush administration in areas such as surveillance, drones and cracking down on whistle-blowers. And Stewart could also be a bit too chummy with people like Bill O’Reilly. Yet, Stewart could be cutting and brilliant, and his “We cannot be Israel’s rehab sponsor and its drug dealer” line in response to the US agreeing to re-stock Israeli munitions during a brief cessation in the bombing of Gaza became an instant classic.
To me, one of Stewart’s finest moments was not on The Daily Show but a devastating 2004 appearance on CNN’s “Crossfire” (a “left versus right” pundit-based debate program Stewart had criticized on numerous occasions). Expecting glib humor and easy laughs, hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson were instead treated to a skewering of the state of political discourse on US television news, with Stewart using Crossfire as his prime example. Stewart’s basic point was that Crossfire’s thin veneer of “balance” and “objectivity” hid an utterly uncritical support for the political status quo. This criticism, leveled at not only CNN but the US news media in general, was a theme Stewart would return to throughout his time at The Daily Show. The clip is worth watching simply to see hosts Begala and Carlson attempt to maintain their composure as Stewart informed them that Emperor CNN was, in fact, wearing no clothes. Three months after Stewart’s appearance on the program, CNN announced that Crossfire would be taken off the air.
Equally brilliant, but also moving, was an epic 10 minutes in the aftermath of the events in Ferguson, Missouri. While the majority of the piece was a standard Daily Show dismantling of Fox News, in the final three minutes Stewart did what few media outlets had done to similar effect: to see Ferguson not just as an media event, but as symbolic of the everyday racism endured — “with grace” as Stewart put it — by African-Americans. This relentless racism meant that, “on a pretty consistent basis, you can’t get a fucking cab, even though you’re a neurosurgeon, because you are black.” What Stewart was saying was that not only was this is a reality most white American could not imagine, it was one they would never tolerate. As Stewart concluded in response to those who argued that race was an overplayed card in US debate, “You’re tired of hearing about it? Imagine having to fucking live it.”
Was he polemic? Sure. Was he partisan? Of course. As he leaves, there are those who say it’s about time. But this was comedy, not news. Stewart didn’t have to be objective. He didn’t have to give all sides of the story. He was giving the side of the story we hadn’t heard. As he gained in power, it wasn’t enough to be funny: Stewart also had to be right. This is why The Daily Show became a force of nature: the synergy effect of humor, great writing, great timing and in-your-face facts.
Stewart was ambassador the US needed. Yes, flawed and snarky, but one that I think most countries would have wanted as their own.