HOLLYWOOD – When Jon Stewart sat before an audience of TV critics last week, he was like a seasoned major league hitter sitting on a fastball.
It came when he was asked what Madonna’s endorsement of Ret. Gen. Wesley Clark for President would mean to the race for the Democratic nomination.
“I think he’s —-ing her,” Stewart replied. “You know how chicks love a man in uniform, baby.”
The hotel ballroom erupted with laughter.
Welcome to the new age of TV politics, with anti-anchor Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” as this generation’s Walter Cronkite.
Stewart makes fun of political candidates, but they still compete to be on his irreverent show – which has activated its “Indecision 2004” team of correspondents with the Iowa caucus coming up on Monday.
And why not, Stewart asks – what do the politicians have to lose?
“The last time a politician had real peril on television was Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential debates when he went: `Makeup? Who needs makeup? I look great,'” he said.
Besides, Stewart has figured out the real reason so many presidential candidates are beating a path to “The Daily Show.”
“What happened is they found out about our fruit plate,” he told the New York Daily News. “I don’t even want to tell you about it because even you will want to be on our show.”
Stewart, a registered Independent, doesn’t believe his show is controversial. For him, it’s an outlet to rant over what bothers him about the world but only if he can get a laugh out of it.
While magazine cover stories describe him as an astute social critic, he still sees himself as just a stand-up comic and sometime movie actor who took over for Craig Kilborn on “The Daily Show” in 1999.
“I just find things curious,” he said.
“It’s curious when President Bush says, `We will nation-build, we will create a democracy in Iraq,’ to remember, in the debates, when he was the governor, he kind of said – what am I looking for? – the opposite of that.
“It’s curious somehow Iraq got assimilated in the war on terror so easily and so without fuss,” he said.
“But the one thing we always have to remember is the only reason anyone would watch us is that we do have a monkey trick to make that funny. If we stop doing that then there is absolutely no point in us being there.”
On most nights, “The Daily Show” has an audience of nearly 1 million viewers – most of them young.
Surveys have shown that a growing percentage of the under-30 crowd turns to late-night talk shows like his to get news.
One-fifth consider “The Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live” top sources of campaign news, according to the latest poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
Stewart’s beef with real TV news on cable is the “anything goes” atmosphere created by the struggle to fill time.
“What has been rewarded is not insight but volume,” he says. “Ann Coulter has been rewarded for saying, `Joe McCarthy – he was a great man!’ What is her next book going to be? `Hitler Was a Great Cook’?
“The same with the guys on the left. It’s become about who can say the thing that makes you snap your head.”
Stewart has already talked with presidential hopefuls Clark, Rep. Dick Gephardt, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Sen. John Edwards, who officially announced his candidacy on “The Daily Show.”
“I don’t think it has anything to do with their individual respect or appreciation of the show,” Stewart says. “It is purely based on their feeling that this is an outlet that may help them in the future.
“Politicians’ lives are a gerbil wheel of salesmanship … a constant salmon-like struggle to get funding and votes, so it makes complete sense to me.”
TV news correspondents, and even TV news graphics and music, are fair game on “The Daily Show.”
But TV news stars are among Stewart’s biggest fans.
“He says in public what a lot of us say privately in the newsroom,” said ABC’s “World News Tonight” anchor Peter Jennings.