Sullivan: Stewart not a journalist, but skilled satirist

By Brendan Sullivan

What have we come to when we must call on Jon Stewart to smack some sense into the American… What have we come to when we must call on Jon Stewart to smack some sense into the American electorate?

I must admit, despite my almost fanboy-level affection for Stewart, host of “The Daily Show,” I was less than pleased when I first heard about the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear held last Saturday. It seemed to me that he was stepping out of his protective sack of satire, that Stewart was abandoning his precious outsider status for a political scene that would almost surely reject him out of hand.

What’s more, I considered it a denial of principles the funnyman himself has put forth.

When Stewart appeared on “Crossfire” in 2004, host Tucker Carlson attacked him for lobbing “softball” questions at then-presidential candidate John Kerry, saying that he wasn’t employing journalistic integrity. Stewart couldn’t have agreed more, throwing up his hands and saying, “The show that leads in to me is puppets making crank phone calls.” He insisted then that he’s not a journalist but a satirist. It can be hard to remember this — Stewart does have a knack for getting visiting politicians off their talking points and onto actual, fact-based policy discussions — but it’s an important distinction.

Having witnessed his denial of his place in national political journalism, I was shocked at the announcement of his rally. Why would he backtrack to such a degree? But what I had forgotten, and what other commentators seem to have forgotten also as they’ve condemned the rally as ridiculous, unhelpful and apolitical, is that the satirists of history have long been the only ones allowed to speak truth to power. The jesters of Shakespeare’s courts, the “holy fools” of Imperial Russia: All these satirists were allowed to speak to their rulers with a candor he would have accepted from no one else.

The press, now, is fully folded into the political structure. Its nickname, the “Fourth Estate,” is a well-deserved one. And with reporters so ensconced in political life, it’s sometimes incredible that we’re so shocked when we find partisan taint in the media.

But remember, Stewart is not a journalist. He’s a satirist. And in this special category, he answers to no politician, no special interest group, no political party. All he has to do to be successful is make people laugh. But what brings Stewart beyond this is his desire to see a better America brought out, and his incredible faith that such an America is possible.

So I decided to hitch a ride to Washington with neighbors on Saturday and give the man a chance  to try and talk some sense.

I spent most of the rally halfway between a TV news van and a first-aid tent, far away from the stage. I could see a screen off in the distance, but it was far enough off that Stewart and Stephen Colbert would have looked interchangeable if it weren’t for Stewart’s average height. At one point, someone 20 feet in front of my section held up an enormous yellow sign that read “Moderates For Better iPhone Reception,” completely blocking what meager view we had. Then, from behind me, a chant started: “Put! Down! The Sign! Please!” After 45 seconds, the yellow sign was politely lowered.

Even with my view restored, watching the rally wasn’t much easier. Organizers clearly underestimated attendance — using aerial photographs, CBS News approximated that 215,000 people attended. Hence, the screens were too few and the speakers were ill-equipped to combat the ambient noise created by a couple hundred thousand people standing around. But the audience was extraordinary — at least in terms of civility. Except for a rare few, the attendees all quickly quieted themselves whenever someone rose to speak, and I even witnessed a few group shushings.

After one too many beautiful harmonies between Jeff Tweedy and Mavis Staples and after a debate with a giant puppet under the control of Colbert,  Stewart came up to speak. He warned listeners, right up front, that he was going to “try for some sincerity.” And sincerity he achieved, right up to the line of sentimentality, which he expertly towed. Americans, he said, are by and large a reasonable people, willing to make sacrifices and compromises for the good of the body politic. To illustrate his point he showed a video of cars merging from four lanes down to one, a demonstration of a long series of compromises  — although this took on an ironic pallor when I saw the redirected traffic of Washington later that night.

Stewart was at his best when launching the short, punchy verbiage that characterizes his show. My favorite platitudes of the afternoon were the comedian’s reminder that “these are hard times, not End Times,” and the Zen-like quip, “If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.”

So in the end, the funnyman wasn’t that funny, just reasonable. He took up the mantle so frequently shoved onto jesters throughout history and made a decisive plea for sanity. And he did it all while resisting the urge to ask us: “You really need me to say this?”

Write Brendan at [email protected].