I keep waiting -- like everybody else is -- for a really great person in political life. I watch TV on Sunday mornings to look for politicians that I could like, but all I see are guys scared to lose their jobs just trying to talk for 30 minutes without getting fired.
-- Andy Warhol
Last Tuesday evening George W. Bush and John Kerry weren't the only ones going head to head. The nation's most powerful television news organizations marshaled all the resources at their command and battled it out over the airwaves to see who could give the American viewing public the least news.
Traumatized by the 2000 Florida flip-flops, anchors, reporters and pundits bent over backwards to play it safe, attempting in the process to spin their yellow-bellied bet-hedging into a badge of journalistic honor. Andy Warhol's 1985 quote above could just as easily be talking about TV news people as the political figures they cover.
Announcing early in the evening that CNN would rely upon an all-new exit-poll system employing state-of-the-art technology, Wolf Blitzer promised that the network would not call any state until after all its voting outlets had closed. Cohort Judy Woodruff offered the vague assurance that no winner would be declared in any state unless the margin of victory was "very large and substantial."
It was as though news outlets were competing in a contest to see who could walk on the greatest number of eggshells. At CBS, Dan Rather stressed the lengths his organization would go to in order to verify results before reporting them. Like anyone was about to take this guy seriously with his recent National Guard faux pas still hanging over him like a dark cloud. Over at ABC and NBC, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw offered similar guarantees that nobody in their outfits was about to go out on a limb just for the sake of satisfying the desperate curiosity of millions out there in TV land.
Fox News' Chris Wallace did let it slip that the new exit-poll system is really the same old exit-poll system with a snappy new name, but otherwise he turned out to be as nervous a Nellie as every other talking head.
Which made for a very long night. The only real break from the boredom came from the country's favorite fake newscast. Anyone who'd somehow managed to stay awake till 10 o'clock could thank the Lord for "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents Election Night 2004: Prelude to a Recount." The expanded, one-hour primetime special aired on Comedy Central and provided a much-needed breath of fresh air and a virtuosic display of the show's award-winning satirical savvy.
It was truly a thing of beauty. Even as the nation's most influential news icons were behaving like total weenies, Stewart and his crew were live with a prescient parody of their weeniness. "Your thoughts?" Stewart inquired of Senior Political Analyst Stephen Colbert at the opening of the show. "Nice try, Jon," Colbert chuckled. "No predictions from me this time. I'm waiting until every vote is counted, recounted, notarized and then personally embossed. I've got my PJs on, I've got some canned goods back here, a cot. I am prepared to miss my children's developmental milestones."
The broadcast managed to touch on pretty much all the themes real news broadcasts had been touching on all evening, but with its own trademark twist. "On election day," Stewart deadpanned at one point, "network news divisions conduct what are called 'voter exit polls,' which can sometimes predict how the election will turn out without all that, uh, accuracy."
At that point, the host threw it to correspondent Samantha Bee, who stood in front of a building that appeared to house voting booths and approached people as they emerged. "Bush or Kerry?" she asked initially, and then moved on to questions such as "With the president or with the terrorists?" "How much money do you make?" "What do you weigh?" and "Have you ever had a homosexual thought?"
An edit later, she could be seen in front of a public toilet engaging American citizens as they emerged: "How did it go in there?" "You were in there a long time; I just wondered what you were doing."
And finally, the punch line to the package: Bee ambushed a couple of unsuspecting patriots exiting an establishment bearing a sign that read "Private Booths." "Hi," she chirped, thrusting her microphone into a flustered customer's face. "What is your full name and what did you buy today at the porn store?"
Rob Corddry had fun with the mandatory electoral map. His had alternate settings that allowed him to switch it into a topographical map ("the Rocky Mountains are bumpy"), a treasure map and even a violent video game. There were witty bits on e-voting and the dangers that lurk behind the curtain -- a doctor detected trace amounts of fecal matter on one lever. Al Sharpton even showed up loaded for bear with one-liners such as, "If Bush wins, it'll be the first time he's been elected president."
A merry time was had by all. Until things started to go south. And north. West, too, and all over the East, for that matter. By the time the hour came to an end, a pall had fallen over the studio. Shortly before 11 o'clock, Stewart announced, the electoral count was 196 Bush to 112 Kerry. "I think I've really set the audience up for comedy," he added. "There's nothing like doing comedy in a room full of what appear to be very sad people."
And they were a lot sadder Wednesday morning. The great Republican gloat-fest was well under way by early evening. Jerry Falwell, for example, stopped by Anderson Cooper's show on CNN to share the fact that he'd known all along the "God-fearing men and women of America were going to vote the president back in."
The reverend expressed his expectation that Bush will make three or four strategic appointments to the Supreme Court in the course of term two and overturn Roe v. Wade. "He's the most overtly Christian person in the White House in my lifetime," Falwell added. "We like that. He shares his faith all over the world."
The greatest threat to global stability at the moment is quite possibly that the folks who feel the need to share their faith "all over the world" also now feel they have a mandate to make things even worse.
I suspect it's going to take a lot of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" to get a lot of people through the next four years. With three years' worth of Emmys and a prestigious George Foster Peabody Award under their belt -- not to mention an audience that's expanded by 25 percent over the past year -- Stewart and company have reason to believe they have a mandate, too. God knows they'll have plenty of material.