The man who's already won the US election - satirist Jon Stewart

The presenter of 'The Daily Show' has won American TV viewer's votes by taking on both Democrat and Republican politicians

By Dan Friedman, November 1, 2012
Jon Stewart talks to Barack Obama during the American President’s appearance on The Daily Show last month  Photo: AP

Jon Stewart talks to Barack Obama during the American President’s appearance on The Daily Show last month Photo: AP

With little more than a hair’s breadth between President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney, the US election is too close to call. However, whatever the outcome, there is already one certain winner – Jon Stewart.

The presenter of The Daily Show and American television's satirist-in-chief has had a good campaign.

He has come to be seen as the US media’s honest broker, and in a country where most people get their news from TV, he is arguably a more important Jewish political voice than either congresswoman Deborah Wasserman Schultz, who is the Chair of the Democratic National Committee, or representative Eric Cantor, the Republican House Majority Leader.

That is because, although Stewart sides more often with Democrats than Republicans, his show is eager to call influential politicians and pundits on both sides to account.

And he does it with a distinctly Jewish flavour. In September he referred ironically to the eight days between Obama taking office in January 2009 and Mitt Romney talking about the “failed policies” of President Obama: “an entire Chanucah".

The week before his hyped debate with right-wing Fox television host Bill O’Reilly, Stewart excused himself from a panel discussion with black experts who were debating racially-coded attacks on Obama and started, on camera, to read Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” and listen to “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Two days before the encounter with O’Reilly, Stewart (born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz) comically threatened that by the end of the debate, O’Reilly would be “saying my haftorah.”

And in the debate, when O’Reilly brought up the right-wing Republican complaint that traditional observance of Christmas was under threat in America, Stewart replied: “I’m a Jew. If you think that Christmas isn’t celebrated in this country then walk a mile in my Chanucah shoes.”

From across the Atlantic in Britain, Stewart's clash with O'Reilly might resemble a debate between David Baddiel and Jeremy Clarkson. The debaters may be highly entertaining media celebrities, but why would they discuss politics in the absence of politicians?

The appeal is one of actual substance. Unlike the first Romney vs Obama debate the preceding Wednesday, the participants were not pulling punches.

And unlike the vice presidential candidates, or the various governors and aides who function as the campaigns’ political proxies, O’Reilly and Stewart could acknowledge the scope of the problems facing the nation, that the political system is largely broken and that their world views are quite different.

Both men wanted to talk about their vision of America.

Since he joined “The Daily Show” in 1999, Stewart has led it from obscurity to award-winning celebrity and to the centre-stage of US politics.

Cultivating a younger and centrist audience (“liberal” in American terms), he has profited from the public disaffection with the neo-conservative politics of the Bush years and especially the growing influence of personality-led partisanship of the Fox media outlets.

British TV viewers know him too – "The Daily Show" has been broadcast in the UK to decent ratings.

'He referred ironically to the eight days between Obama taking office in January 2009 and Mitt Romney talking about the “failed policies” of President Obama: “an entire Chanucah".'

And as he has grown in confidence and stature - President Obama has appeared on his show twice in the past two years, and again on October 18 - Stewart, who turns 50 this year, has referred to his Jewish identity with increasing frequency, employing both language and culture as a basis for his satire.

He grew up in a Jewish household in Lawrence Township in New Jersey, a middle-class town in the corridor between New York and Philadelphia.

His mother was a teacher, his father a physics professor and his older brother Larry Leibowitz is the chief operating officer of the New York Stock Exchange.

Stewart has quipped of him that his brother “changed his name from Stewart. Wanted to seem more ‘financial.’”

His childhood, and indeed early professional life gave no clue to his a future in the media.

His younger years were unremarkable: his parents divorced when he was nine and he was on crutches for his barmitzvah “I’d been playing basketball on a skateboard” he told a crowd at New York’s 92nd Street Y, in 2010.

He went to a good college (the College of William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia) and played on the soccer team.

He became a busboy (his production company is now called Busboy Productions) and a stand-up comedian but his chance at success seemed to have gone when his short-lived “The Jon Stewart Show” on MTV was cancelled due to poor ratings.

That he became America’s premier news satirist was surprising even to his friends.

In a 2010 profile in "New York Magazine", comedian Stephen Colbert — who made his name through “The Daily Show” quotes his wife as saying about Stewart: “Wait a second — he wasn’t the funny one in our group. He was the quiet one in the corner with a beer.”

Identifying as an irate Jew is a useful stance for the presenter of a gadfly programme on cable television.

"The Daily Show" pokes fun at powerful politicians and pundits who ignore the facts or contradict their own assertions in order to score political points.

In 13 years Stewart has won 16 Emmys, plus 2 Peabody Awards (bestowed for “distinguished and meritorious public service”) for the show’s election coverage in 2000 and 2004.

With $6bn (about 22 times as much per head of population as the UK’s general election in 2010) predicted to have been spent on this presidential election, including a pledged $100m by Jewish casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, political commentators have had to shout to be heard.

But it is Jon Stewart who has the megaphone.

Dan Friedman is managing editor of the ‘Forward’, America’s national Jewish newspaper

Last updated: 11:51am, November 1 2012