This seems like about the worst week Jon Stewart could have picked to pack it in as host of The Daily Show. Fox News is holding the first debate among the contenders for the 2016 Republican nomination in Cleveland on Thursday, the same night Mr. Stewart signs off for good.
As anyone who has ever caught an episode of The Daily Show knows, Fox and the GOP are Mr. Stewart's targets of predilection. But since the king of late night satire typically spoofs the news with a lag of a day or more, he will likely have to forgo mocking the hoedown in Ohio.
Mr. Stewart is giving up one of the most influential jobs in the American media just as the term 'President Trump' has become music to the ears of an unsettling proportion of Republican primary voters. No wonder President Barack Obama, who appeared as a Daily Show guest for the seventh time last week, joked (at least we think it was a joke) that he intended to sign an executive order banning Mr. Stewart from leaving the show.
The truth, however, is that it really is time for Mr. Stewart to go. During his 16-year stint at The Daily Show, he morphed from an earnest but impartial comedian railing against the polarization and phoniness of American politics and cable news into a funnyman-activist who skewered only one-half of the political spectrum. He became what he once denounced.
He could still be incisive and funny. But his rants became increasingly self-righteous and contemptuous toward anyone who didn't share his elite liberal world view. His true test came after Republican president George W. Bush and vice-president Dick Cheney left the White House. Both deserved most of the treatment they got on The Daily Show. But when it came to Mr. Obama and the Democrats, Mr. Stewart pulled his punches and, hence, failed his viewers.
When Politico revealed last week that Mr. Stewart twice met with Mr. Obama at the White House, in 2011 and 2014, Mr. Stewart defensively tried to make light of it. "Was the President of the United States trying to influence me? My guess is uh-huh. Did it work? Might have. Was it sinister? I don't [expletive] know." Mr. Stewart insisted the meetings weren't secret, though he never informed his viewers about them until after the Politico report appeared.
The Washington Beltway publication also noted that Obama aides, including former top adviser David Axelrod, were often in contact with Daily Show producers and Mr. Stewart himself. That is not in itself evidence of co-optation. Political aides try to influence journalists in the way they cover stories. Given his influence, it's no surprise the White House tried to spin Mr. Stewart. What is surprising is that he put up so little resistance.
"One of the things that helped propel [Mr. Obama] to victory [in the 2008 caucuses] in Iowa among other places was the outside support from young people and first-time voters," former Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor this month told the National Journal Online. "And I think Stewart's show was a way to very quickly increase awareness of [then] Senator Obama – of his candidacy, of his views – with young people."
The softball questions Mr. Obama fielded during his final appearance with Mr. Stewart on The Daily Show, on July 21, were a disservice to young voters struggling to understand complex issues, such the President's recent deal with Iran to suspend its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Mr. Stewart's fallback line, when criticized for letting Mr. Obama off so easy, has always been: "I'm just a comedian." But it's clear he came to be, and to consider himself, much more than that.
When the editor and publisher of The Nation, the self-described "flagship of the political left," calls Mr. Stewart "one of the most important and influential voices on the progressive left," you know he failed in his mission. "Join us in the centre," Katrina vanden Heuvel recalls Mr. Stewart telling her in 2002. Instead, he ended up joining her on the sanctimonious left.
"I think he has debased political discourse," cultural critic Camille Paglia told Salon.com. "I hated the fact that young people were getting their news through that filter of sophomoric snark.… As for his influence, if he helped produce the hackneyed polarization of moral liberals versus evil conservatives, then he's partly at fault for the political stalemate in the United States."
There is nothing funny about that.