Just before last year's New Hampshire primary, Jon Stewart, 42, presided at a sold-out show in a Manchester, N.H., hotel ballroom. Backstage he was the genial host, quick with a quip, chatting up the guest panelists. As he walked onstage, he received a rock-star ovation, then launched into a witty, insightful monologue about the state of the campaign, the candidates and the coverage. He playfully skewered some of the pundits sitting in the audience. More applause, more laughter.
Then he got to the point. He turned to the panel, of which I was a member, and asked, in a variety of ways, Don't the voters deserve better coverage? More reporting on policy, less time on the horse race, less shouting and more thoughtfulness? He was cheerfully persistent and constantly funny, but he wasn't kidding. The evening became a kind of teach-in on U.S. presidential politics and how the process could be improved. As an interlocutor, Jon was far more effective than most of the self-important critics who conducted similar exercises at universities and think tanks.
That night and throughout the year, on The Daily Show and in his best-selling book, Jon was the citizens' surrogate as he penetrated the insiders' cult of American presidential politics, exposing its absurdities, hypocrisies, juvenilia and most of all its separation from the realities of life for ordinary voters. Jon spoke truth to power (although he would laughingly dismiss such a weighty phrase).
During the Democratic Convention in Boston, I told him I was heading next to Athens for the Olympic Games, and asked, "You ever been to Athens, Jon?" He laughed and said, "No. Brokaw, you forget. I'm a comic. I've been to Akron, but Athens, no." I am not so sure. Perhaps he was there in another life, for in many ways last year, Jon Stewart was our Athenian, a voice for democratic ideals and the noble place of citizenship, helped along by the sound of laughter.
Brokaw was anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News