When John Kerry decided it was time to do his first national TV interview since the Swift boaters for Bush launched their attack on the senator's Vietnam War record, he did not choose CBS's "60 Minutes," ABC's "Nightline" or "NBC Nightly News."
Kerry picked Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," where he will appear tonight in an extended interview.
Now I bet you feel terrible that you dismissed as fools those TV critics who, back in July, collectively crowned "The Daily Show" the year's best news and information program. I know I do.
This marks the first time "The Daily Show" has bagged an actual presidential nominee. Which is not to say that "The Daily Show" lacks political heat. In 2000, vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman showed up, and this election, every one of the 10 Democratic hopefuls except Kerry appeared on the show before the party's convention last month. John Edwards actually announced his intention to run for president on the show, and Carol Moseley Braun dropped out of the race the very next day after appearing on Jon Stewart's program.
In fact, Stewart's show has so much buzz during this election, it's annoying some of the traditional TV newsies.
"A lot of television viewers -- more, quite frankly, than I'm comfortable with -- get their news from the Comedy Channel on a program called 'The Daily Show,' " "Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel whined to his viewers in a telecast from the Democratic convention in Boston. (During that telecast, Stewart took issue with Koppel's comment, saying "Daily Show" fans watch "for comedic interpretation" of the news. "To be informed," Koppel replied, refusing to budge from his position. "They actually think they're coming closer to the truth with your show." Stewart shot back: "Now that's a different thing, that's credibility, that's a different animal.")
Still, you have to wonder why Kerry's camp chose Stewart's show for his TV interview as opposed to, you know, an actual news show -- not that there's anything wrong with that. So we asked Kerry's campaign:
"Jon Stewart understands perfectly all the important issues facing this country right now," a Kerry spokeswoman snapped at The TV Column late yesterday, after engaging in a couple of rounds of the Answer-the-Question-With-a-Question Game. You know how that's played:
Q: Why are you having Kerry go on "The Daily Show" for his first national TV interview since Swifties for Bush went on the attack, instead of a traditional news show?
A: How would that help us?
The rep also noted that Stewart's show was a great way to reach young voters. And another Kerry camp rep, who had returned our call earlier in the day, noted that "another presidential candidate" -- that would be Bill Clinton -- went on Arsenio Hall's late-night show in 1992 and that had not turned out badly for either.
Of course Arsenio Hall did not ask tough questions, which Stewart does, we pointed out. If Kerry wants late-night softball questions, might it not be better to book him on Jay Leno's show?
"Unlike President Bush, [Kerry] answers hard questions and, unlike Bush, he's running a positive, issues-oriented campaign and has encouraged young people to vote and not to stay home" on Election Day, the spokesman shot back.
Earlier, before being clawed by Kerry's reps, we spoke to "Daily Show" executive producer Ben Karlin, a charming man who did not take offense at our questions and who promised that the Comedy Central program would try especially hard to resemble an actual TV news show tonight during its Kerry encounter.
"We're going to focus exclusively on events of 30 years or more ago . . . and not on anything relevant to anything beyond 1964," Karlin said.
He's referring, of course, to the previously mentioned attack ad campaign, which has been funded in part by a top GOP donor in Texas, featuring Vietnam veterans who question Kerry's war record and criticize his congressional antiwar testimony (though that actually took place in the 1970s).
"All of us [on 'The Daily Show'] are just blown away by the turn the campaign has taken," Karlin said. "We cannot believe that this is what is being talked about at this juncture. It's so astounding to us. We are trying to work through our amazement and to conduct a meaningful conversation absent of incredulity, because [the interview] is not going to go anywhere if you just say, 'What the [expletive] is going on?' "
Karlin said he will nonetheless suggest that that be the first question Stewart puts to Kerry tonight.
"If you just want to pinpoint the success of the Republican Party and Bush, this is a perfect case study," Karlin continued, "because George W. Bush has put a moratorium on talk about his behavior under the age of 40 and everyone [in the press] is abiding by it. 'Were you or were you not an alcoholic or did you just have a drinking problem?,' 'Were you or were you not a drug abuser?' Meanwhile they're debating whether [Kerry's war] wounds drew blood or were they superficial, or occurred in the same day, or whether he shot a guy wearing a toga. . . . How is that possible?"
This will also mark Kerry's first late-night TV appearance since last November, when he rode onto Leno's "Tonight Show" stage on a Harley, wearing leather and denim. That night, Kerry played second fiddle on the guest list to Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who noted of Kerry's progress at that time: "The poop I left in the dressing room has more heat coming off it than his campaign."
Which probably explains why Kerry did not pick Leno's show for tonight's interview, softball questions or no softball questions.