“The Daily Show,” at least since Jon Stewart took it over in 1999, has ostensibly been a program about politics. At times it’s seemed like the only sane, sober voice about political issues on television. So a lot of us were eager to see how new host Trevor Noah would handle his first real political interview. He’s talked about and introduced subjects from American politics already – in some cases quite successfully -- and conducted two not-terribly-interesting interviews with a self-praising comedian and a sweetly nervous app inventor. But last night’s conversation with New Jersey governor Chris Christie was his first stab with a presidential candidate.
Noah seems to be finding his rhythm as the host of a program strongly identified with someone else. Wednesday’s show was, in some ways, an improvement over the first two. But if last night was typical of the way he engages as a political interviewer, he’s still got a long way to go.
The first part of the conversation was the usual nice-to-see-you-again banter that helps establish a connection between hunter and prey. They talked about their first meeting (with Christie, inexplicably, wearing shorts), and put together a good spontaneous joke about politicians lying. (“There’s no requirement to lie in your first week on the job,” Christie said; Noah responded: “I guess it’s different to your job.”) This was clever, but also could have gone somewhere if Noah has been quicker on his feet. It became a one-liner instead of something more substantial.
But for the first topical question of the night, Noah asked a very specific and technical question – motivated by his own status as an immigrant from South Africa – about Christie’s “FedEx” plan to use fingerprints on visitors to the country. Christie explained it as best he could, and made a joke about the enormous wall his primary opponent Donald Trump wants to build on the Mexican border (his plan, he said, is “a lot less expensive than a 2,000-mile wall across the entire southern border”) and that was it.
Noah probably did want to genuinely know the answer to this, and may have felt some genuine anxiety about anti-immigrant fervor on the U.S. right these days. But instead of starting off with a more open question about the way immigrants fit into the larger society, he kicked off with a procedural detail.
Noah later asked Christie a question about the governor's role in a government he appears to demonize; a more skilled interviewer would have drilled down into since it may be the key issue in contemporary American conservatism. The site Deadline interpreted this way:
It appears that Noah’s role in late night will be to play the outsider who asks the seemingly dumb questions that cut to the heart of things. Like, early in the show, when he wondered why, in the United States, “you let your baby lions sh*t in your sandboxes in your bathrooms.” The conversation, while entertaining, seemed less like an interview with a presidential candidate, than watching someone study with their tutor to take the citizenship test.
That sounds about right, but Noah did not really cut into the heart of anything. If he was hoping to take that issue – how can you be a governor when you seem to hate the idea of governing? – somewhere, he didn’t give much indication.
What is Christie’s vision of a healthy and just society? What does he want to do as president? What did we learn about Christie that we hadn’t seen before? The governor was reasonably smart, funny, and charming. He didn’t yell at or bully anyone, which for him may’ve taken some restraint. Otherwise, the conversation didn’t tell us much.
Christie is at an interesting point right now. His poll numbers are low enough that he may be moved off the main stage of the next Republican debate. At the same time, as the GOP field winnows, Trump heads for a narcissistic breakdown, Jeb Bush shows signs of fading out from his own boredom, and Sen. Ted Cruz gets even more extreme and annoying, some Republicans may want to take another look at Christie.
So you don’t have to love the New Jersey governor or his often divisive manner to want to get a better sense of him. (As he and Noah discussed, even in the recent three-hour debate, Christie got to speak for about 10 minutes.)
“The biggest obstacle you face right now is getting those poll numbers up, what is your plan to get those numbers up?” Noah asked in his last question. Christie’s response: “Coming on the first week of ‘The Daily Show With Trevor Noah’.” A witty retort, which allowed guest to praise host. But it was also the kind of non-answer – a politician’s artful dodge – that left those of us who are curious about the guy scratching our heads.