Dear conservatives: Jon Stewart can be unfair. He can be ideological — or, to use a more favorable term from recent coverage, passionate — in his coverage of national and world events. But his impending departure from the Daily Show desk should sadden you as well as his legions of liberal fans. He is not just any other ideologue. In fact, a consistent and crucial piece of his message isn’t ideological at all: The right and the left should behave with more civility and self-reflection. And in important moments he has acted on his rhetoric.
The grandest example is Stewart’s 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity, which is the closest thing this country has ever seen to a major demonstration promoting reasonableness. The key moment came when Stewart noted how two lines of drivers entering Manhattan’s Holland Tunnel spontaneously ordered themselves — “you go, then I’ll go.” The point was to contrast the natural courtesy and compromise that Americans often demonstrate in their private dealings with a political culture in which angry disagreement is the default state. Stewart said:
Every one of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief and principles they hold dear, often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers. And yet these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze one by one into a mile-long, 30-foot wide tunnel carved underneath the mighty river, carved by people, who I’m sure, by the way, had their differences. And they do it, concession by concession.
Many of the lefty activists in the crowd didn’t seem to get it, equating “sanity” with their own political philosophy. But that didn’t change the essential value of Stewart’s calls for people just like that to bring it down a notch.
I can’t control what people think this was. I can only tell you my intentions. This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith or people of activism or to look down our noses at the heartland or passionate argument or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear. They are and we do. But we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies.
These sentiments might ring hollow to conservatives who note, for example, that Stewart hasn’t always asked tough questions of liberal guests on his show. But he has demanded that the left perform real self-criticism, skewering liberal icons such as Rachel Maddow — at length — for contributing to the political culture of disagreement and mistrust. Stewart’s 2010 hour-long interview with the MSNBC star is probably the most interesting segment that has ever aired on her show. “We have a tendency to grant amnesty to people that we agree with and to overly demonize people we don’t,” he said. “I do the same thing. I think everybody does.”
On left-wing rhetoric, he asked Maddow, “The left always says, ‘We’re not black and white. I didn’t like Bush because he was so black and white and there’s not a nuance.’ Do you think the left ever suffers from that same myopia?” For example, on liberal criticism of George W. Bush, “I would suggest that it wasn’t necessarily just, ‘This is wrong for the country,’ but that ‘you’re a bad man.'”
Stewart, of course, regularly criticizes conservatives. But take his 2013 interview with Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, which was substantive, calm and respectful — and consequently more illuminating than most of what’s on cable news shows.
I could go on. These examples are not of Jon Stewart at his funniest. But they are examples of Jon Stewart at his best. Conservatives might not get the same consideration from Stewart’s replacement.