In the lead up to the event, which drew throngs of fans and supporters to the National Mall, media studies professors pondered Stewart’s ability to mobilize people, calling it his “watershed moment.” Others fretted he risked being too earnest, urging him not “to move to the front of the country.”
Near the close of the three-hour rally, Stewart did just that, blaming Washington and sounding a little too much like a politician as he told the crowd “we live now in hard times, not end times” and “if we amplify everything, we hear nothing.”
For a brief and somewhat awkward moment, the nation got a taste of its comedic truth teller in a vaguely familiar leadership role.
However odd the whole episode may have been, what’s worth remembering as Stewart begins his long final bow at the helm is that he’s long been a leader in his own right. He may claim to be nothing more than a comedian who hosts a fake news show. But on the qualities we should be judging leaders — influence, intelligence, innovation, willingness to speak truth to power — Stewart stands above many who hold more official roles.
He was early to topics such as Citizens United, leading the conversation on campaign spending regulation before many understood its reach or power. He explained the income inequality problem better than President Obama ever could, pundits claimed. Though seen as a darling of the left, he held Democratic leaders to task as he did Republicans.
He also led a show that was a true talent incubator, producing stars like Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell. And he even brought about real change, such as when he advocated for a 9/11 health bill for first responders that had been held up in Congress.
Most of all, Stewart changed the way people consume news and, to some extent, the way the media presents it. He forced people to re-examine the information they were getting and how it was delivered. For many, he offered a voice for the frustration and irritation they felt over the way Washington is run and the inanity of our political leadership. He became a rare trusted figure at a time when so many in power were not.
Stewart's future career plans are unknown. He has joked they include "a nap" and "dinner on a school night with my family, who I have heard from multiple sources are lovely people." He told his audience on Tuesday that he has a lot of ideas, "a lot of things in my head," though they apparently don't involve political office. (He has dismissed that notion outright in the past, saying he doesn't have the patience.)
Whatever he does, he's likely to have an impact. As Stewart has shown at the helm of "The Daily Show," it doesn't take a powerful office or a traditional leadership role to bring about significant change.