As Rally Nears, Jon Stewart at Crossroads

The President faces tough midterm elections, while the host is in danger of going from comic to political figure with his big rally. Will their interview bring us any closer to rationality?

With Jon Stewart being an outspoken promoter of sanity, it would, of course, be insane for him to turn down a chance to interview a sitting president on "The Daily Show," especially with his big rally coming up this weekend.

For President Obama, whose approval ratings are sagging with the crucial mid-term elections days away, appearing on a show that attracts the demographic that helped get him elected would seem a rational move.

But both men, whose chat is slated to air Wednesday, are at different crossroads where sanity – or competing perceptions of it – might not have much to do with where each is headed.

Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity," along with his Comedy Central pal Stephen Colbert's "March to Keep Fear Alive," is expected to bring a large crowd to the National Mall Saturday. Satellite gatherings reportedly are planned around the world.

There will be, little doubt, debate for days after about whether Stewart and Colbert drew more folks than Glenn Beck's August "Restoring Honor Rally," the event the duo is ostensibly parodying.

But the more important question, though, is whether the Stewart/Colbert affair will cross the line from comedy fest to political spectacular.

The biggest joke about Beck's rally was that he kept insisting it wasn't a political event, even as Tea Party-friendly potential GOP presidential candidate Sarah Palin joined the Fox News talk show host in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

Stewart, who mocks the left and right on his show, has portrayed his rally as a call for badly needed rational discourse on all both of the political aisle. But he – and Colbert to an extent – risk losing their comic credibility if the much-hyped gathering comes off as an exercise in bashing the right.

Perceptions count, even before the fact. The Washington Post ran columns on consecutive days headlined, “The Case Against Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity, by a 'Daily Show' Fan” and “Just Who Does Jon Stewart Think He is?” The latter piece made the front page of the Style section, complete with a drawing of a Mt. Rushmore re-imagined as a quadruple tribute to the many faces of Stewart.

On the far sillier side, NMA, the Taiwanese animated news parody outfit best known for adding to Tiger Woods' humiliation, weighed in on the Stewart rally. The Internet video (check it out here, via Mediaite) shows Obama and Stewart scratching one another's backs in the Oval Office, and portrays the comic as a being part of a liberal cabal that includes Oprah Winfrey.

Winfrey, of course, has lent her support to the rally – providing trips to Washington for Stewart's audience – and was an early prominent Obama backer.

Obama returned the favor by granting her a TV interview. He's done quite a few entertainment TV appearances as president, exposing himself to criticism of frivolous overexposure at a time when the country is mired in all kind of difficulties. He's visited Jay Leno, David Letterman, “The View,” among other shows, and is set for a guest shot on “Mythbusters.”

By going on “The Daily Show,” Obama risks feeding into the right's portrayal of him as a friend of the Hollywood elite – and of Stewart as a liberal court jester.

Obama's planned appearance can be seen as at the very least a tacit endorsement of Stewart's rally, which the President mentioned in comments last month while bemoaning cable news talk show nastiness, blaming both the left and right for being "purposely provocative."

“They get rewarded in the way our media is set up right now,” Obama said.

That he has a point isn't the point.

Some of his recent rhetoric (particularly his comments to Rolling Stone scolding some disappointed Democratic faithful for wanting to “take their ball and go home”)  echoes Jimmy Carter's infamous “Malaise” speech. And his complaints about cable news shows are reminiscent of Spiro Agnew's (via the pen of William Safire) "nattering nabobs of negativism" knock on the press.

Words – and talk show appearances – don’t mean all that much when many folks are looking for change, especially with unemployment nearing 10 percent.

The last time Obama appeared on "The Daily Show," was on Oct. 29, 2008, just days before he was elected, when the hopes of many were high. Stewart, at the time, was facing a potential comic drought with the end of the Bush years. Over the last two years, he’s been the beneficiary, at least in terms of material, of the partisan split that’s hurting the country.

Give Stewart credit for delivering biting satire night after night and for boldness in taking his show on the road, even if his trip to Washington might push him into dubious territory. 

But it’s going to take a lot more than interviewing the President on a comedy show or holding a rally to find whether there’s any sanity left.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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