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5 Things Jon Stewart Reminded Us About Politics

<em>Daily Show</em> host Jon Stewart addresses the crowd at his Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear in Washington, D.C., in 2010.
Saul Loeb
AFP/Getty Images
Daily Show host Jon Stewart addresses the crowd at his Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear in Washington, D.C., in 2010.

When comedian Jon Stewart announced he would leave The Daily Show after 16 years, the field of 2016 presidential hopefuls breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Stewart was famous for his relentless ribbing of politicians and for his focus on political news over the years. The show devoted nearly half its airtime to politics in 2007, according to a survey by Pew.

The show has a decidedly liberal bent, but regularly features conservative politicians and commentators. A 2005 interview with conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly is among the most watched clips on the show's website.

Stewart says he isn't sure what's next for him, and who knows if it will involve politics (though the calls for Stewart to run for office in 2016 already have begun).

In any case, here's a look back at five things Stewart taught America about politics:

1) You can't always pick a side.

Last summer, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel got into it with the one-and-only Donald Trump over the 20-foot-high, glowing letters that spelled out "TRUMP" on his new hotel. Emanuel's take: The sign "scars that architecture, uh, architecture, beauty and taste, with a tasteless sign." But to Trump, of course, "it's a very high quality, very beautiful sign."

"Oh it's a badger fightin' a mongoose!" Stewart said on the show. "I just don't know who to cheer for!"

He reminded us that sometimes there are no clear winners — sometimes everyone in the game might be just a little bit off kilter.

2) The banality of the new news cycle.

One of Stewart's favorite targets is the 24-hour political news cycle — and the cable networks that are stuck in it. Hasty headlines, quick-to-judge hosts, inaccurate graphics and, of course, the overhyped "Breaking News."

"We rag on CNN a lot," he once said, adding in a mumble "mostly because they're terrible."

"If we amplify everything, we hear nothing," Stewart said at his 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity. It's a sentiment the comedian often echoed on his show. While he poked at the beast, he also gave respectful air time to serious political analysts, journalists and public figures. The Daily Showbecame a must-stop for authors, the president, members of Congress and more.

3) Politicians are people, too.

Stewart was part of a wave that redefined political journalism. He came to host the show in 1999 — midway through President Clinton's impeachment trial, as the country was debating how much a president's personal life actually matters to his ability to govern. To Stewart, the peripheral, personal foibles are what make politics amazing and hilarious.

More recently, he has talked about the portraits painted by President George W. Bush ("he is a somewhat confounding dude") and poked at President Obama for his golf outings and love of basketball.

4) Millennials actually care about politics.

In 2010, Stewart addressed a crowd of 200,000 at his Rally to Restore Sanity on the National Mall in Washington. (The parody rally followed conservative commentator Glenn Beck's also large Restoring Honor rally.)

For all the talk of millennials disengaging from the political process, they showed up. Who knows if they actually voted in the 2010 midterm a few days later, but the high attendance at those rallies shows they engaged, even if for one cold afternoon.

5) Politics can be interesting — and fun.

One of the show's appeals to a younger audience was its knack for breaking down the latest Washington scandal by stripping it of Beltway-speak. Here's how Samantha Bee, the show's "White House Correspondent," explained the Valerie Plame spy scandal in 2005:

"Jon, in Washington, information is power, and is disseminated through a sophisticated network of operatives and contacts, in a system modeled after a sorority house," she said.

She then broke down the scandal and all the players as if it were happening in a sorority house, valley girl accent and all: "So then Cooper called Rove and he's all like 'Wilson's wife's all CIA!' and Karl was like 'I know, right! But you totally can't tell anyone I told you!' and Matt was all 'I totally won't!' and Karl was all 'You double-secret won't tell?' and Matt was all 'I totally super-secret, double-super-secret won't tell.' "

That style turned off a lot of serious political viewers, but it got the job done: A 2008 Pew study found that viewers of The Daily Show were most likely to score in the highest percentile on knowledge of current affairs.

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Amita Kelly is a Washington editor, where she works across beats and platforms to edit election, politics and policy news and features stories.