Last week, New York Magazine put Jon Stewart’s cherubic face on its cover, accompanied by a bold headline: “The Jon Stewart Decade.”
In the article, Chris Smith outlined a fairly familiar argument: that Jon Stewart is our generation’s Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America at a time when the issues facing the country seem tailor-made for mockery.
But Smith takes his point a bit further. When Stewart took over as The Daily Show’s host in 1999, Americans were still wringing their hands over President Clinton’s Oval Office shenanigans—a scandal gift-wrapped for comedians.
In the following decade, however, Stewart and his comedic correspondents faced an increasingly bleak line-up of issues: terrorist attacks and two wars. As American politics has grown ever more polarized, Stewart has tried to inject himself as an unlikely champion of moderation, lampooning Democrats and Republicans alike.
He’s also taken aim at the more shrill elements of the news media. In 2004, Smith writes, Stewart appeared on Crossfire, CNN’s famously combative current affairs program, and “delivered a nuanced, impassioned plea for Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson to ‘stop hurting America’ by peddling mindless bickering as partisan debate.” The network cancelled Crossfire months later.
Jon Stewart is, of course, a comedian. But in his decade of hosting The Daily Show, Stewart has walked a fine line between wisecracks and serious political commentary—a line he may have just stepped over.
On Thursday’s episode of The Daily Show, Stewart unveiled his long-anticipated “big announcement”: a massive event on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., called “The Rally to Restore Sanity,” The rally, which Stewart has also called the “Million Moderate March,” is set for October 30.
The event, Stewart said, is designed to combat the political extremism displayed by both Democrats and Republicans in recent years, with leftists calling President Bush a war criminal and right-wingers smearing President Obama as a socialist.
Like so much of Stewart’s comedy, the rally is only half in jest. Staffers will be distributing signs to protesters with slogans like, “I Disagree With You, But I’m Pretty Sure You’re Not Hitler.” And Stephen Colbert will lead a parody of the rally on the same day called “The March to Keep Fear Alive.”
In the midst of an endlessly petty midterm election campaign, Stewart’s faux-rally seems to have tapped into a very real desire among Americans for a more sane political landscape. Stewart may not be our generation’s Cronkite, but the enthusiasm for the Million Moderate March suggests he might be filling a more important role. Amid the discordant screeching of American politics, Stewart is a voice of comic sanity.