Jon Stewart, Mocking Both Sides

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 2010; 9:01 AM

Days before the 2008 election, Jon Stewart jokingly asked Barack Obama whether his "white half" would have trouble making a decision in the voting booth.

"Yeah," the candidate said, "I've been going through therapy to make sure that I vote properly."

Last week, though, the president was the punch line. After showing video of Obama speaking to schoolkids, the "Daily Show" host said in amazement: "You set up a presidential podium and a teleprompter in a sixth-grade classroom? . . . I'm not a political adviser, campaign strategist, et cetera, but that's not a great photo op in a middle school classroom."

It was inevitable that Obama would become a late-night target, at least when Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Dave Letterman have taken time out from sliming each other. But Stewart, who makes no secret of leaning left, is a pop-culture bellwether. And while the White House notes that Obama used the prompter to address journalists, not the students, the details matter little in comedy.

Stewart's barbs are generating partisan buzz. In a tweet, Americablog's John Aravosis invoked Martha Coakley's Massachusetts loss in trashing the prompter joke: "So is this the new post-coakley Jon Stewart, picking on Dems for insignificant BS to burnish his indie credentials. Third time in 7 days." The conservative Fox Nation site, by contrast, ran the video under the gleeful header "Jon Stewart Mocks Obama's Teleprompter Dependence."

"He's clearly become an important cultural arbiter," says Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "He's pulled off the trick of being taken seriously when he wants to be and taken frivolously when he wants to be."

Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor and an occasional guest, sees a glimmer of hope. "Jon has always been a crypto-neocon," he e-mails. "Could he be coming out of the closet? . . . A neoconservative is a liberal mugged by reality."

Stewart relentlessly ridiculed George W. Bush for eight years, painting the Iraq war as a giant "Mess O' Potamia." He went easier on John Kerry and Obama and, for a time, had trouble attracting Republican guests. That's one reason he and Stephen Colbert became cult heroes for many younger, liberal fans. During the 2008 Democratic convention, Stewart cracked to reporters that comics were giving Obama a pass because of "liberal bias and not wanting to be racist."

But the Comedy Central star has always maintained that his primary job is getting laughs. And ideology aside, it was hard early on for comedians to get a fix on an eloquent new president with no outsize mannerisms. Even Fred Armisen's "Saturday Night Live" impression was pretty lame.

Now, of course, Obama is in rough political waters, which always makes for better material. In recent weeks, Stewart has accused the president of hypocrisy for breaking his pledge to televise legislative negotiations on C-SPAN: "This looks and sounds pretty bad for Obama." His "senior black correspondent," Larry Wilmore, solemnly informed the host that "Negroes aren't magic. . . . He's just suffering from the hard bigotry of high expectations." On another night, Stewart chided Obama for his cerebral style, saying: "You thought you could win us over with rational policy decisions and an even temperament?"

None of these jokes are particularly cutting, but what's telling is that they're being told at all. During the campaign, Lichter says, comedians made far more jokes about George W. Bush and John McCain than about Obama.

As a faux newsman who regularly skewers the media, Stewart is an icon to many journalists, especially those in television who sometimes copy his quick-cut editing techniques. As NBC anchor Brian Williams, a regular guest, told National Public Radio: "A lot of the work that Jon and his staff do is serious. They hold people to account, for errors and sloppiness."

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