John Kerry tanks on The Daily Show.

John Kerry tanks on The Daily Show.

John Kerry tanks on The Daily Show.

TV and popular culture.
Aug. 25 2004 12:06 PM

If He Only Had a Heart

John Kerry tanks on The Daily Show.

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When my boyfriend and I heard that John Kerry was slated to be the guest on last night's Daily Show, we all but raced to the TiVo to set it on record. (Not that we ever miss The Daily Show anyway, but this would be one worth keeping.) What a "get" for Jon Stewart, the court jester of the 2004 election! And finally Kerry would have the chance to step down from the campaign stump and show people who are desperate for a reason to vote for him what he's really made of: his passion, his conviction, his much-vaunted (at least by his wife) sense of humor. Except, as Jon Stewart has been known to say: Eh, not so much.

Not exactly A-list material
Not exactly A-list material

From the moment the senator appeared and sat down on the gray sofa where, just last week, Bill Clinton basked in the audience's applause like a cat lapping up cream, Kerry's charisma was less than zero: It was negative. He was a charm vacuum, forced to actually borrow mojo from audience members. He was a dessicated husk, a tin man who really didn't have a heart. His lack of vibrancy, his utter dearth of sex appeal made Al Gore look like Charo. (I've always found Al Gore sort of hot, actually, like a stuffy high school principal just begging to be broken down. But I have some issues with authority.)

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Watching Kerry strike out was especially heartbreaking given that Stewart was pitching not just softballs but marshmallows. Puffy interview marshmallows with rainbow sprinkles on them, and Kerry was letting them sail by as if he planned to get to first base on a walk. That may be how he hopes to win the presidency as well, but before he gets there, he'll have to jump through hoops a lot tougher than this exchange:

Stewart: […] As any good fake journalist should do, I watch only the 24-hour cable news.  This is what I learned about you—

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Dana Stevens is Slate’s movie critic.

Kerry: All right.   

Stewart: Through the cable news. Please refute if you will.  Are you the number one most liberal senator in the Senate?

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Kerry: No.       

Stewart: Okay.

Kerry: You happy with that? (LAUGHTER)

Um, no, Senator. Should we be? Kerry seemed unclear on the concept that he was there precisely to poke fun at the recirculated sound bites of the talking-head circuit, that this was his chance to take terms like "liberal" and "flip-flop" and split them wide open. All he had to do was shoulder his rocket launcher (he's good at that, right?) and take aim at the received wisdom that has kept the focus of this campaign exactly where the Bush camp wants it to be: on who did what in a war we lost 30 years ago, rather than what to do next in the war we're losing right now. Instead, Kerry ignored every opening Stewart gave him, preferring to dust off rhetoric that's become familiar even to casual followers of his campaign: "You don't go to war because you want to. You go to war because you have to." That was a good line at the convention, but baby, the convention was a month ago! This is Jon Stewart, the king of politically savvy late-night television. You need new A-list material. Get someone on it.

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The current controversy about Kerry's war service got only a glancing mention, when Stewart leaned in to murmur, "So I understand that apparently you were never in Vietnam." But Kerry's repeated vows to stay "laser-beam focused" on the "real issues" didn't keep him from milking his war record at every possible opportunity. Asked whether the Swift boat ads had affected him personally, Kerry replied pointedly, "Yeah, it's a little bit disappointing. But believe it or not, I've been through worse." And then, when the interview was over and Kerry rose to leave, he caused audible groans in my household by saluting the audience (just as he did at the opening of his convention speech: "John Kerry reporting for duty." Lieutenant Kerry, your first order is to stop saluting the audience. It makes you look like a total tool).

Luckily for Kerry, the Daily Show audience is not a swing state. It's very likely that most of the demographic that watches this show will grit their teeth and vote for him anyway. But can we really trust our future to a man who fails to see the humor in the following exchange?

Kerry: You'd be amazed the number of people who wanna introduce themselves to you in the men's room. (LAUGHTER)

Stewart: Really?

Kerry: God. It—it's the most bizarre part of this entire campaign.

The struggle on Stewart's face was visible but, eager to put his distinguished (and less-than-flexible) guest at ease, he let this setup go by without so much as a dirty joke. When it comes time for the debates this fall, the Bush camp won't be so kind.