Whether you're a hawk or a dove, it's hard not to like a TV news show that captions its reports on Iraq as updates on the "Mess o' Potamia." It also doesn't hurt to have an anchor who's inclined to borscht-belt mugging, or to feature theme music from They Might Be Giants. During an election cycle in which cable news has become increasingly either anodyne or ideological, and in which the three main network operations didn't exactly perform like the swiftest boats in the river, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" has provided a brand of fake news that often feels a lot smarter than the real thing.
To be fair, Ted Koppel has done pretty well too, but as Stewart's new America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction (Warner, $24.95) helpfully points out, "he is a shapeshifter." This mock textbook has many fine jokes (a key responsibility of the secretary of defense: "kicking sand in face of secretary of state") and some less good ones (a 6-year-old Oliver Wendell Holmes attending the premiere of "Hey, Everybody, There's a Fire in the Theater . . . We're Not Kidding"), but proudly maintains Stewart and his merry band's trademark blend of satire and civic concern.
It's not quite as funny as the show, though. Unconstrained by the niceties of actual journalism, "The Daily Show" writers slice up hypocrites, self-promoters and their favorite targets, Bush administration officials, in the deftest possible manner: by expertly parsing the pols' own statements. (The clip-job showing Gov. George W. Bush, circa 2000, debating his latterly presidential incarnation -- on nation-building, intervention and the need for humility in U.S. foreign policy -- was particularly devastating.) Because Stewart's humor also relies on sheer speed, he and his writers draw more blood by quick, sure responses to new insults to the public's intelligence than from the slightly contrived format they've chosen here. Moreover, the book's best lines suffer somewhat because they're not delivered by the droll Stewart or his crack correspondents, such as the gleefully verbose Stephen Colbert or Samantha Bee, the world's most deadpan Canadian. Still, those who have grown weary of an electoral season with too much trivia and too little serious post-9/11 debate will find balm in these pages. Here it is, in print form: your moment of Zen.
-- Warren Bass