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8 Ways Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Show More Leadership Than Our "Leaders"

Why are two comedians stronger beacons for the American people than our elected officials?

During Jon Stewart's and Stephen Colbert's tenure spoofing news and politics from Comedy Central (for 12 and six years, respectively), they’ve evolved into two of the most truthful, if sarcastic, journalists on television. But in recent months, they’ve graduated from their media posts and started doing what we want our lawmakers to do—speak honestly, directly and straightforwardly about the most important issues of the day without any vested (or monetary) interests.

Last week, the Nation’s Leslie Savan wrote a post titled “Jon Stewart Does Obama’s Job for Him.” The post called attention to a characteristically incisive and sarcastic Stewart speech about the right’s “Class War” freakout over Warren Buffett:



Savan’s broader point was that Stewart’s messaging is at this point far more effective than the president’s. Frankly, if Obama sincerely wants to make things better for the American people while combating the lies the GOP perpetuates, he could take a cue from Jon Stewart, who delivered some of the most difficult and least-reported facts about US income inequality and taxes on the rich in a neat, easy-to-digest package.

It might sound absurd to think it, but when Congressional sessions sometimes feel more like a joke than Comedy Central programming (c.f. debt ceiling debate), the world’s gone just backward enough for it to work. Besides, as vaunted journo Keith Olbermann pointed out in his pre-Current Rolling Stone interview, “Comedians are the only ones paid to tell the truth in public discourse. Everybody else—politicians, news broadcasters, religious figures—we're all paid to be oracles, when in fact we are like a good public-relations man. A good public-relations man keeps you away from the public, and if you have relations, he keeps that hidden.”

In the spirit of that sentiment, here are eight instances when Stewart and Colbert have done better by the American people than the politicians we elected to office. These actions might even recontextualize the “Rally to Restore Sanity”—or at least help make up for its false equivalence.

1. Colbert’s Super-PAC

The tagline is as ridiculous as it is genius: “Making a better tomorrow, tomorrow,” riffing on Colbert’s conservative spoof that implies there’s a whole lot of talking, but barely any doing. But where Colbert's show and persona began as a sarcastic send-up of right-wing journalists—O’Reilly, specifically—the creation of his Super-PAC has solidified his position as a parody of politicians. It’s performance art of the best variety, yet if Al Franken can make Congress, one wonders if Colbert could really make a go at political office?

It seems like the right is taking him seriously. At the last minute, a local Des Moines station declined to air his “Rick Parry” ad, an absurdist-alarmist clip advising Iowa straw poll voters to write in “Rick Parry” for prez. Then, Colbert’s PAC lost its committee treasurer to Rick Perry’s campaign. His amazing response: “We’re not surprised. Sal is the best in the business. That’s why we went with him,” Colbert wrote. “We’re happy for Sal and we are even happier that Governor Parry has sent the clear signal of which super PAC he trusts to receive all that unlimited money waiting to pour in on his behalf. Loud and clear, sir. Unofficially, loud and clear.”

2. Jon Stewart on Citizens United

In January 2010, we knew the Citizens United ruling—which opened the floodgates to unaccountable political funding by corporations—was going to alter the American political landscape in a bad way. We didn’t quite know exactly how bad. (See: November 2010 elections, not to mention subsequent lobbyist intimidation of members of Congress.) Stewart, though, ever prescient, knew what was to come, and also broke down corporate personhood: