Last night was the biggest moment in The Daily Show‘s history, at least in terms of its ability to blur the lines between a silly comedy show and a legitimate news source: the show’s first full-length, in-studio interview with a sitting President of the United States. (Obama has been in the studio with Stewart before, but before he was President..) Obama has been a more talk-show-friendly President than most: last year he was on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, the first sitting President to sit down with a talk show host. But that was the most-watched talk show on television, which The Daily Show is not, and it was a short, soft interview (though Obama managed to get himself in minor trouble anyway with his “special Olympics” joke). By going on The Daily Show and doing a full-episode segment, Obama was almost anointing Stewart’s show as the equivalent of a prestigious cable news program: something that doesn’t have that many viewers, but has the ability to drive the news and the narrative.
James Poniewozik has more thoughts on the interview and what it says about Stewart’s status as a “real” news personality, rather than just a fake one. Stewart has the luxury that most TV journalists don’t have, of being able to only get serious when he wants to — he can always hide behind his comedian status to preserve his credibility in a tough situation, while real newsmen have no choice but to take everything (even things they may personally consider not worthy of mention) seriously. And Stewart also benefits from not having to pretend to be a policy wonk or political junkie: he can, and did, spend most of an interview asking questions about process issues and Obama’s failure to change the system. A “real” reporter would have to ask more questions about policy and the election horserace, not just because of network pressure, but because the real news’s job is to give more broad-based information.
I think both Stewart and Obama came off pretty well in the interview, even if both were ill at ease — but why not? This was a big moment for Stewart, who really is uncomfortable in situations like this. (I get the impression he really doesn’t want to get politicians mad at him, even though it’s part of his job and he does it. When Meghan McCain was on recently, Stewart seemed genuinely unhappy that her father, once one of Stewart’s favourite people, has turned against him and the show due to the negative coverage he received in 2008.) Obama was uncomfortable for the same reasons that any sitting President facing a tough mid-term would seem uncomfortable. One thing that seemed to come across most clearly is that the health care legislation, and his belief that it sill turn out to be the right thing despite its overall unpopularity on both left and right, is something that’s very much on his mind. Obama isn’t G.W. Bush, but both of them are preoccupied with the idea that history will judge them to have been right. I guess a lot of leaders are.
Obviously, too, Stewart isn’t some kind of firebrand interviewer who asks all the tough questions the Mainstream Media won’t ask. There are many criticisms that didn’t play a big role in the interview, like the biggest criticism of Obama from the left, his record on civil liberties.
One thing the interview left me wondering about is whether the show will ever be able to get George W. Bush. Conservatives actually go on Stewart’s show quite a lot, as they consider it a place where they can get a fair shake from Stewart and prove that they are cooler than people think. But Bush is the only living President who hasn’t been on either Stewart or Colbert. (Bush’s father hasn’t been interviewed, but did tape a message for Colbert’s Iraq show.) I’m certain they’d love to get W., and I’m certain it’s been suggested as part of his book tour, but it seems equally certain that they won’t get him. I think it would be a good idea for him to go, since Stewart would be very nice and respectful (voluntarily) and might help him improve his image.