Jon Stewart, John McCain and "Bullshit Town"

The "Daily Show" host confronts the senator about his embrace of the religious right.


Farhad Manjoo
April 6, 2006 2:12AM (UTC)

A few months ago, I criticized Jon Stewart -- whom I usually love -- for failing to confront the extremist Sen. Rick Santorum. And a few days ago, I criticized Sen. John McCain -- whom I usually love -- for failing to criticize the extremist Rev. Jerry Falwell. How nice, then, to see these two objects of my affection together on Tuesday night's episode of "The Daily Show," and to have each man redeem himself. Well, kind of.

Stewart -- who loves McCain for the same reasons I do (the senator comes out swinging on tough issues, issues that even many Democrats are afraid to touch) -- has been dismayed by McCain for the same reasons I have: McCain appears to have swung to the right recently, a shift that's exemplified by his decision to speak at the commencement of Falwell's Liberty University. The move seems to go against everything McCain has long stood for -- not just his assertion that the religious right is damaging to the Republican Party and the nation, but that politicians shouldn't pander to such constituencies in order to win votes. As Stewart put it, "Has John McCain's Straight Talk Express been rerouted through Bullshit Town?"

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Stewart was, for once, tough with a politician. "You're killin' me here," he told McCain. "I feel like it's a condoning of Falwell's kind of crazy-making to have you go down there. It strikes me as something you wouldn't normally do. Am I wrong about that?" He added: "You don't think it helps to sort of reassert Falwell as the voice for a certain group of people -- isn't it the kind of thing that maybe if you don't go there it helps to keep marginalizing guys like that, or do I misunderstand politics?"

McCain, who was funny and amiable, didn't really deviate from the answer he gave on Sunday on "Meet the Press." He said he's speaking at Liberty in the same way he speaks at universities all over, and that he hasn't changed, and is still his own free-thinking man. Yet if I'm not mistaken -- if I'm not letting my admiration cloud my judgment -- I think McCain acknowledged what his fans are hoping is true: That his appearance at Liberty is just a kind of Kabuki, that he too thinks Falwell is nuts but, you know, he would really like to become president, and if you want the top job sometimes you've got to hold your nose and kiss some ass. Of course he didn't say this, but it was in his tone and in his eyes, in the resigned, what-are-you-gonna-do look he shot to the camera. And of course, his very appearance on Stewart's show is a calculation. McCain may feel he needs to woo Falwell, but his fans are in Stewart's audience, not Falwell's. These are his people, and he knows it.

"You're not freaking out on us? Are you freaking out on us?" Stewart asked.

"Just a little," McCain said.

"Cuz if you're freaking out on us and you're going into the crazy base world ... Are you going into Crazy Baseworld?"

"I'm afraid so."

"I hope you know what you're doing there," Stewart said. "I trust that you do."

I have to say, I feel better. McCain's going to speak at Falwell's university, but he's not going to give the guy a bear hug. The Straight Talk Express has been rerouted through Bullshit Town -- but from the sound of it, it's only a temporary detour. (I think.)

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Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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