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Within hours of the broadcast, the cybersphere was filled with the wails of anguished bloggers lamenting the vanishing of Stewart's spine. The online magazine Slate sorrowfully ripped him for "pitching not just softballs but marshmallows." Stewart, who is nothing if not self-critical, has spent the weeks since then making funny and self-deprecating remarks, on-air, about how badly he blew it with Kerry. Off the air, he's less inclined to joke about the disaster. "I honestly think it was my discomfort at wanting to be funny," he says. "I think I could have been more forthright with him and still done the type of interview that I normally do." But isn't falling back on the I'm-just-a-comedian excuse an unfair out? "I think that's always an unfair out," he admits. "But ultimately I'm judged on whether or not the show is funny. If people get a certain insight from the comedy, that's wonderful, because we're trying to do jokes about things we care about and certainly our point of view is inherent in it. But the idea that somehow we fail when we don't live up to journalistic expectations is a misreading of "what it is we're doing."

Like I said, the dude is smart.

In mid-September, Stewart re-upped on his Daily Show contract (which reportedly pays him in the order of $2 million a year), and thus will be at the fake anchor desk through the election of 2008. This, I would argue, is encouraging news for the state of the republic, and it no doubt makes the suits at Comedy Central happy. Less pleased, I suspect, are folks like Bill O'Reilly and other conservatives who believe that Stewart and The Daily Show gang are little more than stealth operatives for the left. In reality, Stewart has always maintained an air of nonpartisanship, although, as Election Day nears, he's been delivering some particularly blunt attacks on Bush. "Sometimes," he says, "we decide to drop the irony and just say it."

Stewart is by no means convinced that the scorn he heaps, four nights a week, on the Bush administration will cost the president a single vote in November. Prior to a recent taping of the show, Stewart, while warming up the studio audience, asked if anyone had any questions. When a male audience member demanded to know if Stewart will continue to "bash" Bush if he wins the election, Stewart asked who they thought was the most "joked about" president in history. "No," he continued. "Not Van Buren. It was Clinton. And he left office with a seventy-five percent approval rating. The truth is, folks, that jokes in actuality defuse criticism of a politician rather than erode his support." He let this sink in for a moment. Then he said, in a whisper, "So maybe I'm punkin' you all."

This story is from the October 28th, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone. 

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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