The most trusted man in America

The reality of Jon Stewart’s February 10 announcement that after 17 years he would be leaving as host of the “Daily Show” on the Comedy Central cable network did not quite hit home until the March 30 announcement that his successor would be South African comedian Trevor Noah.

Noah, who has some Jewish ancestry, in turn was quickly the subject of controversy surrounding some offensive tweets he made in the past, tweets that some consider anti-Semitic, not to mention misogynistic, and perhaps worst of all, simply not at all funny.

But more significant is the fact that Jon Stewart’s replacement is, for all intents and purposes, a nobody. A Noah-body. And this should come as no surprise, despite all the speculation about who might succeed him, with suggestions as varied as “Daily Show” alumni such as John Oliver, Larry Wilmore, and John Hodgman, and comics Amy Schumer, Chris Rock, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, her former co-star Alec Baldwin, and even MSNBC political commentator Rachel Maddow and disgraced NBC news anchor Brian Williams.

The simple truth is that Jon Stewart would be a hard act to follow. Close to impossible, really, no matter how big the name and reputation. No established star in his or her right mind would risk the inevitable judgments about having failed to live up to Stewart’s legacy, so the only alternative was to find someone with nothing to lose to serve as the sacrificial lamb. Only time will tell whether Noah will be able to survive the flood of comparisons that surely will come his way.

But the big question is how did a nice Jewish boy, born in New York City and raised in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, grow up to become the most trusted man in America? “The most trusted man in America” is a citation that previously was bestowed upon the longtime CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite. That Jon Stewart seems to have inherited the title would no doubt strike the comedian, born Jon Stewart Leibowitz, as both an honor and a disturbing commentary on the state of journalism today. It is consistent with Neil Postman’s observation, three decades ago, that the television medium requires entertaining content, and that journalists on television news shows cannot help but become entertainers. By the 1990s, it became a commonplace to note that most young people got their news from the late night monologues of Jay Leno and David Letterman.

What set Jon Stewart apart from Leno, Letterman, and other talk show hosts, including his predecessor on the “Daily Show,” Craig Kilborn, was the depth of Stewart’s humor, his intelligence, and the incisiveness of his critique of the news media, and the subjects they report on, especially politics. If the fourth estate is supposed to fulfill the function of the watchdogs of society, Stewart provided the answer to the question of who watches the watchmen, and he has done so with dogged determination.

To be sure, on the conservative side of the political spectrum, Stewart is not quite as well trusted as he is among liberal viewers. His political leanings are well known. As much as he has tried to be fair and balanced in his skewering of politicians and the media personalities who cover and comment on them, he could not help but direct a significant portion of ire and irony at Fox News, whose often blatant attempts at propaganda have made it all too easy a target. No doubt, given our current political polarization, we would be hard pressed to name someone who is equally trusted by those on the left and the right of the political spectrum, so it is enough to say that Stewart has gained the confidence of America’s moderates and centrists. And we also might recall that Cronkite was denounced as too liberal in his day, especially after coming out against the Vietnam War in 1968.

We might also recall that Cronkite was considered seriously as a potential Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 1972, and was urged to run for president in 1980. So it should not come as a great surprise that following his resignation from the “Daily Show,” there have been calls for Jon Stewart to run for the Democratic presidential nomination for 2016, as the only viable alternative to Hillary Clinton. The calls have come from a variety of sources, including longtime television critic and biographer Marvin Kitman, who notes, “Now I realize Jon will have to talk to his mother in Teaneck first. But I’m hoping he will put his country ahead of the cheap overnight thrill of making just another movie. Or a better chicken soup.”

Stewart run for president? Why not? After all, his friend and colleague Stephen Colbert did it in 2007. And the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear that they co-hosted at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 2010, which was attended by more than 200,000 people, demonstrated the strength of his popular and populist appeal, and the foundational values on which his comedy was built. The “A Moment of Sincerity” address that he gave at the close of the event was as good as any campaign speech made by any candidate now out on the stump. Toward its end, he declared, “We know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light we have to work together. And the truth is, there will always be darkness. And sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t the promised land. Sometimes it’s just New Jersey. But we do it anyway, together.”

Whether he actually runs for office, in a serious campaign along the lines of the one run by United States Senator Al Franken, a Saturday Night Live alumnus, or as a form of satire, as Colbert did, remains to be seen. But what is quite clear is that Jon Stewart was able to transform the Daily Show from just another low budget television vehicle for sophomoric humor into a significant source of news and opinion, commentary and criticism, ad entertainment and education, and in doing so, transform himself from just another comedian to a worthy successor to the man who took us from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to the moon and beyond.

And is there any doubt that the secret to Jon Stewart’s success is the fact that his humor has been built on a foundation and rooted in a tradition of social justice, ethical conduct, and compassion for our fellow human beings? His values, the values of his upbringing, shine through his 17 years on the “Daily Show.” They make clear the fact that he is much more than a comedian – that he is nothing less than a mensch.