In his final days as host of the Daily Show, Jon Stewart’s reputation as the Walter Cronkite of a younger generation is getting new review.
Last week, for example, comedian Marc Maron’s podcast revealed that Stewart and comic/writer Wyatt Cenac clashed heatedly over Stewart’s 2011 racist portrayal of presidential candidate Herman Cain.
Stewart has regularly rejected the claim that he’s any sort of journalist, even as his legions declare they get their “news” from his nightly program.
That’s why a report in Politico has some significance. Politico suggests that Stewart was connected to the Obama White House, summoned there on a couple of occasions just before President Obama made significant announcements.
Obama White House officials enjoyed it when Stewart was singing from the same hymnal. But they also were quick to pay attention when he turned against them.
“He’s an expert shamer,” said Dag Vega, a former White House staffer who was in charge of booking the president and other administration officials onto The Daily Show.
[Obama adviser David] Axelrod, a frequent Stewart guest, kept in touch with the host by phone and email. In an interview, Axelrod said Stewart was “a useful prod” for the administration.
“I can’t say that because Jon Stewart was unhappy policy changed. But I can say that he had forceful arguments, they were arguments that we knew would be heard and deserved to be answered,” Axelrod said.
[Obama adviser Austan] Goolsbee said he would often wince at Stewart’s assaults on the Obama White House and Capitol Hill Democrats. He recalled one particularly tough January 2010 episode in which Stewart used a clip from the 1980s TV show ‘The Wonder Years’ to question why the Democrats ever expected Republicans to negotiate in good faith on issues from climate change to taxes to financial reform. “You’re just cringing,” Goolsbee said. “Oh God. I think the main thing that you’re hoping is you’re hoping in your heart of hearts he’s not right.”
Like Axelrod, Goolsbee acknowledged he would stay in touch with The Daily Show staff: He emailed with his former Yale classmate and improv comedy partner Scott Bodow, who joined The Daily Show as a writer in 2002 and now is an executive producer.
That work-the-umps strategy also involved the president, who used his two Oval Office meetings with Stewart as a chance to sell the administration’s ideas. At the 2011 sit-down, Goolsbee said, the president wanted to counter his critics on the left and lay the groundwork for his 2012 re-election campaign.
“The White House itself was quite interested in at least explaining its side of the story to Jon Stewart,” Goolsbee said, “up to and including the president.”
The summoning of Stewart to the White House validates the belief that the comedian is more influential on the public discourse than any journalist. But do the rules of journalism apply to a comedian who doesn’t consider himself a journalist even as the people watching consider him one?
That ongoing question probably dies when Stewart goes off the air next week. His successor, a South African comic, is unlikely to achieve the same level of influence.