There are no exact directions. There are probably no directions at all. The only things that I am able to recommend at this moment are a sense of humour; an ability to see the ridiculous and the absurd dimensions of things; an ability to laugh about others as well as about ourselves; a sense of irony and of everything that invites parody in this world. In other words, rising above things, or looking at them from a distance; sensibility to the hidden presence of all the more dangerous types of conceit in others, as well as in ourselves; good cheer; an unostentatious certainty of the meaning of things; gratitude for the gift of life and courage to assume responsibility for it; and a vigilant mind.
-Vaclav Havel, upon receiving the 1999 Open Society Prize
For the next year or so, prominent Democrats will debate whether their party needs saving. Most donkey jockeys recognize they need something, and fast, if they're to win the presidency in 2008. But whatever the recommendations-"Drop the cosmopolitan, metrosexual imagery," "Rediscover the party's Midwestern roots"-prospective plans of action will inevitably overlook the fact that the United States has entered a post-sense age. American politics has become a theatre of the absurd. Following the polls and speaking clearly about your platform just doesn't win elections anymore. The only way the Democrats will win the presidency is by embracing the absurdity of their present political situation and nominating Jon Stewart for president.
That's right, the Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's hugely popular news parody, The Daily Show. If he hasn't already, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe should spark up a doobie and tune in, because everyone's favourite sarcastic Jew may be the Democratic Party's only hope.
The idea for Stewart '08 came up after perusing the September issue of Wired magazine, which focused on the future of American politics. Alongside stories about MoveOn.org and Joe Trippi's campaign fundraising revolution, the magazine gave pride of place to California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Gubernator looked out from the cover with a smug half-smile, as unironic letters proclaimed him the poster boy for a new "Rage Against the Machine."
Schwarzenegger, not Howard Dean. California's 2003 recall offered the Great Barbarian the perfect opportunity to fuse his tremendous popularity, action-hero persona, money and political connections into a successful candidacy. At a time when the state's voters were demanding efficacy and common sense, Arnie's outsider pose-unbeholden to special interests, a people's champion determined to kick some legislative ass-suggested he would bring a fresh approach to governing. What's more, his politics are radically centrist (as Jon Stewart himself has noted): a patchwork of right- and left-wing stances that changes as the mood or need requires.
The new governor's past may be glutted with Hitler worship and steroid-fuelled weight-room gangbangs, but the Golden State doesn't seem to care. Using his filmography as an alternate resumé, Arnie convinced the electorate to overlook his complete lack of political experience. It paid off. In the face of widespread media jeering, he has garnered accolades for restoring voter confidence and convincing prominent state Democrats to play ball. Even though his response to the state's crippling debt was to go a further $15 million in the hole, the majority of Californians still believe he's saving them from financial catastrophe.
In 2008, American federal politics could catch up with and even surpass the Golden State, slingshooting beyond mere absurdity to hyper-reality. Like the War on Drugs, the War on Terror will continue in its present state of denial and disarray. Increasingly uneasy about government policy and the state of the economy, Americans at large will pine for the same kind of political hero Californians demanded in 2003. Mr. Schwarzenegger Goes to Washington has never sounded so believable.
The American constitution pre-sently forbids anyone born outside the US from becoming president, but it is readying itself for a facelift. Amending the constitution may require approval by two-thirds majorities in both the House and the Senate as well as by three-quarters of the states, but Americans have just strengthened the Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and most state governments are red. The President's support is also likely: when the going got tough this fall, Arnie stumped for Dubya in crucial swing states like Ohio. Since 1868, twelve attempts to remove the restriction on foreign-born presidents have failed, but thirteen may be the Republicans' lucky number.
Democrats know this, and are scared. Twelve, possibly even sixteen, years of Republican rule would render America unrecognizable to them.
This is why Stewart is the Democratic Party's best bet. The Terminator's entrance into the national political arena will be the ultimate act of spin, suggesting that America has become a movie about itself. And not a good movie, either. If you thought tarnishing John Kerry's Purple Heart and selling President Bush as a down-home second coming was bad, just wait. Should the country descend further into debt, civil strife and a costly Middle Eastern morass, Republican strategist Karl Rove could easily tap into voter anxiety by selling a mythic Arnie.
Consider what Rove could do with Collateral Damage, a film that features the Governor chasing down terrorists and getting revenge. It's the ultimate electoral fantasy. Since Arnie is a centrist, it won't just be Bible-thumpers voting for him in 2008-it'll be Democrats too. Spin, having decisively defeated reality, will rule.
Jon Stewart is the antidote, the anti-spin.
At this point, some readers may be asking, "How on earth is a Northeastern, Jewish, professional ironist going to appeal to sincere, religious farmers and factory workers in the Midwest and in southern states? What, apart from a punchy slogan or quip, does Stewart stand for? And how on earth could he ever win?"
REASON No. 1: TRUST
It may seem insane at first glance, but Stewart 2008 is for real. In a country that has witnessed a stolen election, a string of liars in the White House and this year's Rathergate, this smirking ironist is one of the most trustworthy people on television-the Walter Cronkite of our times, in fact, as a recent Rolling Stone profile pointed out. In a heated exchange with Ted Koppel during the Democratic National Convention, Stewart argued that Americans have turned to alternative news sources because they've lost faith in the notion of objective truth. In such a climate, anyone who doesn't instantly acknowledge bias loses credibility with the average viewer. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and openly partisan bloggers attract their viewers by simplifying the situation; Stewart, though, sets himself apart. While others rail maniacally against liberal media conspiracies or the cynical machinations of a fundamentalist right, Stewart sits in the middle, mocking the tragicomic theatricality of it all.
By revealing how slick and empty the mainstream news media is, Stewart has earned the confidence of a generation. Can any other Democratic hopeful make the same claim? The 1.1 million viewers who tune in to The Daily Show every night aren't just watching to laugh; they're also there for the news. In January 2004, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 21 percent of people between eighteen and twenty-nine cited comedy programs like The Daily Show as a regular source for presidential campaign news. While this figure made political analysts cringe, a poll conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center in summer 2004 revealed that Daily Show viewers were more informed about key campaign issues than those who consumed only traditional media. Why? Because Stewart exposes partisan spin and breaks complex stories down to their absurd kernels.
Consider a mock debate that The Daily Show staged between Dubya and Dubya: video clips show the President staking out contradictory positions on everything from government spending to America's responsibility to intervene in other countries. Stewart's film editors didn't have to manipulate the clips in any way. A look of perturbed incomprehension from the host was all that was needed to highlight the President's inconsistency. No caption could make the humour any blacker.
"When future historians come to write the political story of our times," said PBS commentator Bill Moyers on Now in July 2003, "they will first have to review hundreds of hours of a cable television program called The Daily Show." In our post-sense world of spin and counterspin, reality has been so disfigured that the only way to discuss contemporary politics is to hold it up to derision-here, Stewart is the master.
REASON No. 2: TELEVISION
Politics has long been a contest of who looks better on TV. To be president, you have to be a star, not a technocrat. Look at Bill Clinton. He didn't stand a chance against Bush Sr. until he donned some shades and wailed on his saxophone for The Arsenio Hall Show. Voters are now viewers. In 2008, the candidate who looks best in the living rooms of America will soon be looking back at the country from the White House.
John Kerry was boring. His staid, plastic manner wasn't entertaining enough. Though many felt the Senator's debate performances exemplified the gravitas and intelligence required of a president, few found him electrifying. Bush, on the other hand, looked scared and awkward in the first debate, but won people over by cultivating a folksy on-air persona. If the Democratic Party learns anything from its 2004 disappointment, it should be that the only way to defeat television appeal is with more of the same. If Arnie runs, the Dems will need to fight showbiz with showbiz.
Stewart has built a career on his knack for communicating layered messages with lightning speed. Arnie needs an editor, but Stewart certainly doesn't. Where Kerry shied away from dealing Bush the knockout blows that so many Americans were begging him to dish out, Stewart would be frank and bold. In a debate, Stewart is like an o'erbrimming glass of nitroglycerine. A well-placed joke, an offhand comment, a shattering hail of common sense-these are all he needs to explode his opponent's granite facts and moral turf. Though some won't agree with Stewart's stance on social issues, few in the living rooms of America will fail to see him as anything but a sharp-shooter who tells it like he sees it.
Most importantly, though, Stewart is a master at poking his head out of the frame, thereby revealing its laughably narrow confines. In America's increasingly two-dimensional political future, qualities such as these will become more and more necessary in order to rally the ranks and restore political discussion to something recognizable and sane.
America badly needs to rejuvenate its political discourse. Stewart already has a better team of scriptwriters than anyone else on the planet-that's a good start.
REASON No. 3: JON LOVES THE AVERAGE CITIZEN
Is the American media's job to make sense of the issues for the average voter or to serve as a platform for partisan views? In the 2004 presidential campaign, the media seemed to choose the latter option. Party spokesmen relentlessly spun every development, and average citizens got lost in the tumble. Centrist voters who agreed with some Republican policies and some Democratic ideas struggled to find a place in the angry, polarized exchanges that defined the campaign coverage. The media failed the people by not guiding them through the spin.
On October 15, Stewart staged a one-man intervention for the soul of the American media on CNN's Crossfire. The appearance was ostensibly to promote America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction, but Stewart immediately took control of the agenda and made it far more real than either of his hosts expected. "Stop hurting America‚" he urged pundits Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson. "And come work for us, because we, as the people ... we need your help. Right now, you're helping the politicians and corporations. And we're left out there to mow our lawns."
Stewart continually refers to the average centrist citizen, who is too busy doing yardwork and buying groceries to find out which party's platform represents his or her best interests. This, it seems, is Stewart's primary motivation for doing his brand of satirical reporting: he cares about the little guy. If he can convince Americans that Arnie is selling them a make-believe ending to debt, war and economic decline, Stewart could well unleash a flood of long-suppressed voter indignation.
REASON No. 4: NOT A SCANDAL MAGNET
Unlike Schwarzenegger and previous presidents, Stewart doesn't do cocaine, he didn't ditch air duty, he won't try to redefine the word "is," he won't promise no new taxes, he doesn't have Nazi friends and he does inhale. Jon Stewart is the ultimate Everyman, the kind of guy who has a burger and Coke at the same New York City diner after every show. Isn't there something profoundly reassuring in that?
REASON No. 5: THE UNDERDOG FACTOR
The Democrats crave a candidate who won't alienate or bore the South and the centre, but what they really need is a candidate who gets people fired up. Stewart can accomplish that the same way he does every night on Comedy Central: by breaking the mould and communicating directly with people. No one should assume that Stewart is incapable of expressing and carrying people's dreams for the future. He may accompany his heartfelt expressions of hope and desire on The Daily Show with a snicker, but that's a comment on the conditions that thwart his aspirations, not on the sentiments themselves. As his appearance on Crossfire proves, Stewart has very strong ideas about America's history and the country's potential. His distance from the hallways of power has created a frank voice. But unlike Arnie, who by 2008 will be perceived as an established politician, Stewart could still play the outsider-the small guy from Lawrence Township, New Jersey, who has come up from nothing. Stewart 2008 would give new life to the dream that any American child can grow up to be president. Even ironic, smart-ass Jewish kids. He'd be the twenty-first century's Lincoln.
REASON No. 6: IRONY
Though no ironist has ever been president, what age has ever been quite like this one? Some say that irony died on September 11, 2001, but the subsequent enactment of the Bush doctrine has made irony more necessary than ever. By the time the 2008 election rolls around-with a national debt that is no longer even calculable, a potential conflict with Iran, the loss of Social Security in a falling stock market and the continued exploitation of religious language-"sincere" political speech will have been thoroughly bankrupted, leaving black humour as the only honest discourse.
Unlike politicians, Stewart under-stands how to use irony-a massively underrated political tool. Just try and stop him from being surgically sarcastic. Arguing with staid and serious politicians, Stewart would be like a fox in a chicken coop.
REASON No. 7: THE WORLD
Stewart is a uniter, not a divider. He clearly believes we need a sea change in American foreign policy. He will continue to denounce the Bush model for its imperialistic implications and smug delusions. He might, for instance, suggest that the time when one tribe invaded another in order to export beliefs is now as dead as Constantine or Queen Victoria.
The US is a superpower in decline, and Stewart would prove an ideal Fool to its Lear. In the response to 9/11 and the spitefulness of recent political debate, we've already seen the beginning of what could prove a catastrophic nationwide anxiety attack. A Stewart presidency would teach the United States how to laugh at itself. The English have learned to do so in their post-imperial age, and soon America will too.
REASON No. 8: WHO ELSE?
It's hard to see how this "joke" candidate could discredit the Democrats more than the milquetoast candidacies of Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry, or the sexual deceptiveness of Bill Clinton (or Jesse Jackson, for that matter). Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and the usual Democratic suspects won't stand a chance against Schwarzenegger because they'll take him too seriously. As Stewart would say, "You can't win by playing the bad guy in a Last Action Hero universe." With a campaign focused on returning America to both its senses and its ideals, Stewart would stand a fighting chance because he has the ability to convey inspirational ideals to voters. And perhaps even to live them.
My advice to Jon Stewart: phone up Joe Trippi right away and start work on a fundraising campaign. Recruits-and funds-won't be difficult to find. 2008 could well mark the greatest political mobilization of stoners, disenfranchised, intellectuals and average, common-sense citizens in American history. Politics and political humour will never be the same.
JON STEWART: THE CALL TO DUTY
March 13, 2007
After the US constitution is amended and Arnie gets the support of key Republican leaders, Jon Stewart claims that his job has become too easy. "I'd love to come in one day and have nothing to work with but Paris Hilton sex videos and parliamentary spitballs," he complains on The Daily Show, "but right now it's like playing T-ball with Serena Williams' testicles."
Stewart takes The Daily Show on a cross-country tour. During a broadcast from St. Louis, he invites Vaclav Havel onto the show and declares the birth of a "Flannel Revolution."
May 19, 2007
Stewart declares he's leaving the show to run for president: "If the Republicans can amend the constitution for their candidate, surely they can warp the space-time continuum for li'l ole me."
May 27, 2007
Stewart meets Joe Trippi in a New York burger bar and emerges with a Deanesque campaign plan: the humorist will refuse to take donations above $100. Within days, Stewart has a $200 million war chest thanks to donations from loyal viewers. Havel throws in $50.
June 25, 2007
Stewart unveils his campaign slogan: "Fake News Guy for President!"
Posters depict Stewart pushing an old-fashioned lawn mower, with the slogan "Let's Give America a haircut. Or whatever."
March 12, 2008
After an early setback in Iowa, Stewart sweeps the remaining primaries. "We're fighting showbiz with showbiz," says the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, puffing on a fattie.
September 25, 2008
During the foreign-policy debate, Stewart scores points by calling the Governor on his campaign and its promises: "Arnie is selling you a dream that Survivor: Iraq is finally going to end with the cute guy as the winner. And you're all lapping it up. This is politics, people, not a movie!"
October 8, 2008
"What state are we in as a nation‚" asks Stewart during the domestic debate, looking every bit the love child of Jack Kennedy and Bea Arthur, "when-and I still have trouble saying this-Gov-er-nor Schwarzenegger and fake news guy Jon Stewart are running for president? Let's just admit it: humankind can't handle crises without reverting to make-believe, can it? We've got ourselves in a bit of a jam, so we need Conan the Barbarian to ride in on his secretary to save us!"
October 19, 2008
The New York Times editors end their endorsement of Stewart by writing, "This is the way the world ends, not with a Jock but a Joker."
November 3, 2008
Stewart's final message to the American people: "Vote for me. Frogs will not drop from the sky. This is not a moo-vie."
November 4, 2008
Jon Stewart is elected by a comfortable majority. Rove is hospitalized after a small mountain of illegal "hanging chads" falls on him. In his concession speech, Schwarzenegger warns, "I'll be back."
"Jon Stewart For President" was originally printed in the Summer in Winter Issue of Maisonneuve (Issue 13 February/ March 2005).