November 15, 2004,
During campaign 2004, it seemed, everyone had to take a side. Popular musicians such as Bruce Springsteen and the Dixie Chicks alienated many fans by throwing themselves into the political fray. CBS News and the New York Times, once hallowed institutions of journalism, were unmasked as party hacks with their National Guard and Iraq-munitions-dump story assists to Kerry. But through it all, there was still political satire. Like clear-eyed umpires calling a passionate Yankees/Sox series, the humorists roasted the ridiculous and panned the pompous...right?
Well, almost. Alas, this year's partisan fever even compromised some of America's most respected professional funnymen.
Leno and Letterman were their usual topical selves, taking on Bush and Kerry with gleeful abandon. But this year there was a new late-night comic star rising. His name was Jon Stewart, the talented anchor of The Daily Show, and his caustic, sarcasm-crusted humor was edgy, fresh, and bipartisan. His nightly send-up of news journalism was dubbed by Dennis Miller as "state of the art" comedy.
Until The Daily Show became The Daily Shill.
In the campaign's home stretch, Stewart stumbled. His humor turned increasingly partisan, increasingly shrill, and finally dead serious. Interviewing John Kerry in late September, Stewart gushed over the candidate, at one point asking: "How are you holding up?" That fawning performance earned Stewart a rebuke by pundit Tucker Carlson in an exchange on CNN's Crossfire, on which Stewart appeared as a guest. Ribbing Stewart over the comment, Carlson received a patronizing lecture from Stewart in return, who criticized Carlson and his sparring partner Paul Begala for "hurting America" with their program.
Such pomposity would once have earned Stewart's scorn on The Daly Show. But now it was the comedian playing the pompous buffoon.
Sadly, it didn't end there. The New York Daily News reported that Stewart was "in a real bad mood" following Kerry's loss, staying only a few minutes at The Daily Show's election party. Then, on November 4, The Daily Show hit its low point of the season. After a spotty opening feature on the election, Stewart brought on Sen. Charles Schumer to wallow in Democratic self-pity. How could America's moron voters have possibly given Bush a second term? The entire show was best summed up by the performance of Lewis Black, one of Stewart's regular guest comedians. Riffed Black: "The electorate has spoken, a sound I won't try to imitate out of respect for the mentally retarded." Ha ha?
While Stewart was imploding on television, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, she of the rapier wit and cutting prose, was self-destructing on the Times's op-ed page. Like Stewart, Dowd had begun the campaign by painting a large canvas with the missteps of both camps. Lethal as ever in her appraisal of the president, she had also turned her discerning eye to Madame Kerry in this July column:
Teresa has the air. . . of an old-fashioned European movie star. She projects a quality like Marlene Dietrich or Jeanne Moreau, a sultry touch-me-and-you-die look with an accent to match: a rare political perfume of I don't give a hoot, I'm worth a billion dollars and you're not and he's not and the Bushes are not; of I have four mansions and he doesn't; of I'm so confident I can admit to using Botox and I can wear Chanel while my husband complains about manufacturing jobs' going overseas.
But then Bush hatred stole her muse.
Satire driven by emotion quickly loses its way, and by campaign's end, Dowd was well out to sea. Consider this flail at Cheney, two days after Bush's win:
Just listen to Dick (Oh, lordy, is this cuckoo clock still vice president?) Cheney, introducing the Man for his victory speech. . . .He's creating the sort of ''democracy'' he likes. One party controls all power in the country. One network serves as state TV. One nation dominates the world as a hyperpower. One firm controls contracts in Iraq.
Her rote stabs at liberal bogeymen Fox News and Halliburton are tired self-parody, but the Crazy Cheney curveball lacks even the basic foundation of satire: It doesn't ring true. Neither Cheney's public image nor his political history suggests nuttiness quite the opposite. He is either shrewd (to his supporters) or calculating (to his critics). But cuckoo? Dowd had truly lost the scent.
Even editorial cartooning's greatest name was overcome by the anti-Bush vapors.
Pat Oliphant, a self-described "equal-opportunity cartoonist" and one widely admired for his merciless treatment of both parties ("fiercely independent, relentlessly individualistic" to quote a New York Times review), succumbed to the partisan pen by election's end.
Oliphant has famously caricatured Carter as a shrinking man, Reagan as a doddering dupe, Bush Sr. with a purse, and Clinton with no pants on; but in campaign 2004 his pen held little poison for John Kerry. Instead, Oliphant beatified the lanky Bostonian as a Lincolnesque figure, towering over a tiny, half-cocked Bush cowboy.
A Kerry endorsement cartoon from Pat Oliphant? Say it ain't so!
And while Oliphant hasn't moved to Canada just yet, his post-election cartoons are decidedly, um, sore. In his Nov. 5 cartoon, Oliphant depicts Bush interviewing Jesus Christ for a cabinet post: "Do you think you could meet our right-wing standards?...Do you hate gays?...Are you opposed to stem-cell research? Do you believe the earth is flat?" Yuk yuk?
For fans of American satire, we can only hope that these talents rediscover their good humor soon. Politics needs a little levity.
Henry Payne is a Michigan freelance writer and editorial cartoonist for The Detroit News.