Stay With Us, Jon: How the Rally to Restore Sanity May Threaten a Beloved Institution
For eight dark years, Jon Stewart was the only thing keeping me from tearing out handfuls of my own hair, and I’m not the only one: as New York Magazine’s cover recently proclaimed, Stewart’s not having a moment, he’s having a decade. For all of his “aw shucks, I’m just a clown” posturing, Stewart has a fairly large and hyped-up army behind him, but until now he has resisted the adulation of people like me — beyond the whole performing-to-an-adoring-crowd-four-days-a-week thing, anyway.
When he recently announced the upcoming Rally to Restore Sanity, a lot of us were thrilled — and then we hesitated. What is he after? we wondered. Is this a true political rally, or just a Comedy Central-sponsored party, an excuse for a big, live, outdoor version of his show? Does he know what he’s getting into? Most pressing, for me at least: Why now?
As Stewart explained it, the rally was an outgrowth of practical circumstances: the Daily Show happened to be broadcasting from D.C. that week. He presented it as a lark, a “rally for people who don’t go to rallies.” As Mark Harris, who expressed a sentiment similar to mine in this week’s Entertainment Weekly, wrote: “Nice try, but that’s a perfect description of the people who think about going to a rally and then decide to watch it on YouTube.” His column articulates my discomfort about the project: “Rally crowds make their own rules. And they almost always get the last word.” In other words, this thing may well get bigger than Stewart intends; his self-deprecation, though mighty, may not contain it. (Stewart addressed this tension, naturally, through a joke: for days before announcing the rally, he teased his audience about an upcoming Announcement to End All Announcements.) Perhaps a bunch of lefties will gather at the Lincoln Memorial, have a few laughs, post a few pictures to Facebook, go home, and forget about it. Perhaps our Jon will experience a moment of discomfort when he looks out into a sea of faces and picket signs, but he will proceed through his script and move on. Then again — the mind wanders into fantasyland — perhaps the force of the gathering will spur the creation of a lefty movement, an anti-Tea Party. A Coffee Party. That isn’t a bad thing, in itself; in fact, it could grow into a great thing. Too often, people of my liberal ilk lack the “passionate intensity” that propels the crazies forward. However, I do question Jon Stewart’s place at the head of such a movement — mostly because he’s so valuable precisely where he is now.
In addition to the consequences of this one event, there may be a broader change in the way Stewart is perceived. Ultimately, that may be the rally’s most damaging effect. He is crossing a line upon which he’s danced for years. For all the good work he has done, it is Stephen Colbert who has been the more visible figure in the real world of governance — Colbert’s monologue at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was a luminous moment of truth spoken directly to power. Stewart is better known for visiting and confronting other pundits, like Tucker Carlson and Bill O’Reilly. His territory is that of commentator and critic, but now, he has placed himself in a leadership position. Whether he intends it as a joke may be irrelevant to the people who show up by the busload. (The word “busload,” incidentally, is not meant facetiously. The Huffington Post is sponsoring free “Sanity Buses” to shuttle people from New York to D.C. that day.) Going forward, when Stewart appears across from Terry Gross or at O’Reilly’s table, he may have a tougher time retreating into jokes. He will have lost his protected position as a joker on the sideline. We may gain a more nuanced political thinker, but we may lose a beloved comic, and sometimes, as we learned between 2000 and 2008, it is comedians on whom we must rely to tell the truth.
Stewart’s timing also raises questions. October 30 is three days before the midterm elections. It may appear that the rally is intended to influence them, but its ostensible purpose is to cool down rhetoric on both sides, not promote a liberal agenda. However, it’s coming too late to influence anyone making inflammatory statements while campaigning. Minds will be made up by that weekend; the way the rally may actually influence the election is by inspiring Stewart’s audience — i.e. the liberal base — to get up off the couch and vote. That’s great news for people like myself, who would love to see Democrats stay in power, but it puts a dent in any claim Stewart makes to neutrality.
I have a hunch that I am overreacting to the Rally to Restore Sanity. Most likely, the news story on All Saints’ Day will be that several thousand people stood around in windbreakers, bought bottled water, and filled the cash registers of the bars in the D.C. area before packing up and returning home to business as usual. There may be a slight shift in the way Jon Stewart is treated by the punditocracy, but he will probably continue to offer the same witty snark from our televisions and computers from Monday to Thursday. Above all, my fervent hope is that the power-bug won’t take a nibble from Mr. Stewart when he’s up on the stairs, behind the mic, looking out into that sea of faces. Perspective comes from humility, and no matter how New York or Jewish or outsider he may ordinarily feel, the view from that podium could be a tough thing to shake.