Politics / February 16, 2024

Jon Stewart Is Not the Enemy

You don’t defeat Trump by rejecting comedy.

Jeet Heer

Democrats should not be afraid of Jon Stewart.

(Matt Wilson / Comedy Central’s The Daily Show)

It was the quip that saved a presidency: In 1984, Ronald Reagan’s triumphant march to reelection faltered as concerns emerged about the president’s age and mental sharpness. Reagan was 73, but often seemed much older. In his first debate with Democratic rival Fritz Mondale, Reagan was scatterbrained and wandering in his speech, giving halting and digressive answers. This display energized Mondale’s challenge and created a possibility that the Democrat could pick up independent voters and win the election. The cognitive decline of the president became the hot topic of conversation, not just a staple on news programs but also the source of innumerable gibes from talk-show hosts and comedians.

Reagan, a cagey performer if nothing else, responded to his sinking numbers by not by running away from criticism and ridicule but by turning it into a punch line. In the second debate, Reagan, with the assurance and relaxed pacing of professional actor, joked, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The line was met by laughter from all—including Mondale, although not without an internal groan. MSNBC election correspondent Steve Kornacki reports that Mondale “has said since then that that moment, he knew the election was over and that was it.”

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Humor helped save Reagan in more ways than one. It’s not just that his banter helped make light of his greatest weakness. Jokes are a powerful tool for helping people make peace with their anxieties. They lower the room temperature. This can be true of some hostile jokes as well as self-deprecation. When Johnny Carson, Robin Williams, or Saturday Night Live mocked Reagan as a doddering codger, they also helped make the president seem grandfatherly and safe. From Reagan’s point of view, better to be known as benignly dotty than run on his actual record as the extremist promoter of counterrevolutionary violence and unchained plutocracy.

The lessons of Reagan’s deflecting worry about his aging through jokes are being ignored by Democrats as Joe Biden’s run for reelection is met by increasing press scrutiny of the president’s aging.

On Monday, Jon Stewart returned after a nine-year absence to hosting The Daily Show, the political comedy show that turned him into a national star during the presidency of George W. Bush. For his first segment, Stewart focused on the fact that the presumptive presidential nominees of the 2024 race, are the two oldest candidates ever to run for the presidency. Although Biden and Trump are both senior, Stewart did not equate them. He noted, “Joe Biden isn’t Donald Trump. He hasn’t been indicted as many times, hasn’t had as many fraudulent businesses, or been convicted in a civil trial for sexual assault, or been ordered to pay defamation, had his charities disbanded, or stiffed a shit-ton of blue-collar tradesmen he’d hired. Should we even get to the ‘grab the pussy’ stuff? Probably not.”

The underlining theme of Stewart’s monologue was clear: Biden’s age is a concern, but Trump is also old and a far worse candidate in every way. This is a message that helps Biden and the Democrats, since it confronts fretting about Biden’s age (a concern that polls consistently show is shared by a large majority of Americans) but contextualizes them to make Biden’s reelection seem like the right choice.

While Stewart did show clips of Biden’s misspeaking (saying Mexico when he meant Egypt and uttering the words “chocolate chip cookies” with an unsettling glee more worthy of a Muppet than a commander in chief), these were more than balanced by clips showing Trump under oath forgetting key details of his life (including the question of whether he has a good memory) and also making comments outlandishly unhinged from reality (that if he lost the election the state of Pennsylvania would be renamed).

Stewart concluded, “Biden’s lost a step, but Trump regularly says things at rallies that would warrant a wellness check.”

Stewart’s segment was fundamentally pro-Biden, a shrewd use of comedy to address unease while also, as Stewart at his best always does, keeping the big political picture in mind. It’s a way to address the age issue on pro-Biden terms but still maintain the trust of independents and nonpartisan Democrats, who are the swing voters in danger of abandoning Biden or staying home.

Unfortunately, Democratic Party partisans, with their characteristic habit of shooting themselves in the foot, reacted to Stewart’s monologue in the worst possible way: with strident denunciation for breaking the party line.

Rolling Stone reported that “more centrist Democrats, including those most likely to have appended ‘Blue Wave’ and ‘Resistance’ labels to their social media accounts in the Trump years, were appalled at what they saw as a betrayal by one of their own.”

The magazine listed a long litany of liberal complaints:

Liberal media figures were among those unamused by Stewart’s comeback episode. Independent journalist Aaron Rupar, for example, complained that his material was “basically the New York Times op-ed page in TV form,” adding, “both sides are not in fact equally bad!” Former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann called Stewart a “bothsidesist fraud” and hoped that the talk show host would take another nine-year hiatus from the Daily Show. The hosts of daytime talk show The View faulted the episode for “ageism.” And Bill Palmer of the anti-Trump website Palmer Report—not exactly known for wholly accurate coverage—denounced Stewart’s “false equivalence horse crap,” vowing not to watch the show anymore.

One Stewart critic, Democratic Party consultant Tom Watson Stewart tips on how to do comedy, tweeting:

Here’s how you do age-related Biden humor.

TV Host: Joe Biden is so old.

Audience: How old is he?!

TV Host: Joe Biden is so old that he didn’t just promise to abandon the defense of western Europe against Putin and the Russians.

<rimshot>

With all due respect, Watson’s joke was convoluted, confusing, and witless. Watson would do well to cling with dear life to his day job.

This cohort of seething and bitter liberals need to get a grip. Their defensive response to a comedy routine betrays their brittleness, fear, and weakness. It’s far more hurtful of Biden than anything Stewart said.

Stewart’s routine was not a “both sides” muddying of waters, although Stewart has been guilty of that in the past. His monologue deftly made the pro-Biden argument without demanding that voters ignore their own eyes and ears, which show that the president is in fact aging.

Like any commentator with a long record, Stewart is open to criticism. He’s had his ups and his downs. In the wake of 9/11 and George W. Bush’s bellicose foreign policy, Stewart was a rare and welcome voice against warmongering. During the Obama era, Stewart did lose his way and became an avatar of a smug, tepid, post-political liberalism, as displayed in his ill-conceived 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear (organized with fellow comedian Stephen Colbert). This self-infatuated event, animated by milquetoast centrist politics, was well-criticized in The Baffler by writer Steve Almond. And as an interviewer, Stewart can be cringe-inducingly ingratiating and uncritical. On the new Daily Show, he allowed Economist editor Zanny Minton Beddoes to go unchallenged when she said military aid to Ukraine was “the cheapest possible way for the US to enhance its security. The fighting is being done by the Ukrainians. They’re the people who are being killed.” This brazen celebration of Ukrainians as human sacrifices to American security is surely worth probing.

But whatever Stewart’s fault, when he’s at his best he mixes political insight with a robust, hearty wit. This was the Stewart on display in his routine about the aging of the presidency. Biden has some talent for self-deprecation. He should co-opt Stewart’s approach and encourage his most blinkered supporters to learn to take a joke.

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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