After nearly 16 years, comedian Jon Stewart is leaving the reins of The Daily Show. Recently, a number of comic hosts have left long-term late-night gigs -- Jay Leno, Steven Colbert, David Letterman, Craig Ferguson, Brian Williams -- but barely a blip on the giggle continuity screen. I mean, Stewart's departure is not like Walter Cronkite signing off. On second, third, and fourth thought, it's exactly the same.
Cronkite was the trusted voice of America in real news. Stewart has been the trusted voice of satire ... and real news. So engaging was he that even seeming adversaries such as Bill O'Reilly, a headliner from Fox News, one of Stewart's favorite targets, had become a regular visitor. The Daily Show might have been structured as fake news, but besides the takedown of authority, which is the bedrock of satire, Stewart, through commentary and interviews of so-called serious guests, would ask questions and follow-ups that the serious news/talk-show hosts would never get close to asking.
While he would reveal his sentiments, he never seemed to let good relationships with his guests stand in the way of asking and framing his questions in a manner that would not allow the interviewee to duck or tap-dance around an actual answer. His follow-ups offered his depth of understanding of the issue and gave the impression that he didn't just hand off reading a guest's book or issue to a researcher or intern. He knew his stuff.
John McCain was a regular guest with a seeming good relationship with Stewart. In a 2007 interview with the Republican senator from Arizona, however, Stewart revealed that he would not let friendship or satire get in the way of asking the tough questions.
From the start, it was obvious that Stewart was not in the mood for trading tit-for-tat punch lines:
"Do you want to start with 'Bomb, Bomb Iran' [McCain's ill-thought-out parody of the Beach Boys' song] or your 'market walk' [the senator's stroll through an Iraq marketplace, trying to illustrate how calm things were, while wearing body armor and surrounded by troops]?"
It didn't make any difference which McCain chose. It was "Did you stop beating your wife?" to the max. But it was McCain who had baited his own trap. Stewart shot down every talking point as if he had been prepared for them. The interview drilled enough holes into McCain's stump speech that he might have thought twice about running.
But the interview was not as much an insight into the thinness of McCain's arguments as much as what should have been a template for every real Sunday morning talk-show moderator.
At the end of the emasculation, Stewart leaned over to his old friend - something he is wont to do at the end of every interview -- to whisper whatever it is he says. I don't know what McCain said back, but I'm sure it wasn't "Can't wait to come back."
It is because of moments like this that I don't feel any sadness about Stewart's departure. I just give thanks that he gave us those 16 years.
And for us fans, "that's the way it was."
This post originally appeared in the author's Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer column.
Steve Young was the former political editor of National Lampoon and is the author
of Great Failures of the Extremely Successful (www.greatfailure.com).