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In defense of both Jon Stewart and Tucker Carlson

Jon Stewart
Greg Nash

In 1999, when I was director of communications for former Sen. Bob Dole, Comedy Central was ramping up its “Indecision 2000” show with Jon Stewart. The producers reached out to ask if Dole might consider being a contributing political analyst. As it turned out, the comedy network’s timing proved most opportune. 

At that time, Dole’s wife Elizabeth was preparing to run for the Republican nomination for president. Because of that, Dole told me he was wary of going on network political shows — which then were “Meet the Press” with Tim Russert, “This Week” with Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson, and “Face the Nation” with Bob Schieffer. He didn’t want to debate the pros and cons of Elizabeth Dole versus his great friend, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. He rightfully saw it as a lose-lose situation for him, at home and in the Senate.

After speaking with the Comedy Central team, I told Dole the network would offer him an “out” card — meaning that, at least for some requests for Dole to be on the D.C. political shows, we could say he was contractually obligated elsewhere. And as it turned out, Dole really liked Jon Stewart; they had great chemistry together, and the segments proved to be successful on a number of levels.      

Dole usually taped his segments in person at Comedy Central’s studio in New York. I went with him and, before and after Dole’s appearances on the set, I occasionally talked with Stewart. I suspect he may not remember me now, but I honestly found him to be kind, down-to-earth, and respectful of Dole’s service to the nation and the wounds he suffered in World War II.  More than that, I realized that although Stewart is left-leaning, he’s politically astute, generally fair-minded, and enjoys an honest debate.     

Over the years since, I have defended Stewart in the face of partisan attacks by conservative or Republican friends or acquaintances. I may not agree with him all the time — and honestly, less so over the past few years — but he is a good, decent human being and we need more voices like his out there.     

Now, about that same 1999-2000 timeframe, I also met Tucker Carlson. He and I were guests on a political show and chatted for a few minutes in the TV station’s green room before making our appearances. To be honest, when I met Carlson, I assumed I would dislike him. I say that because, as a once poor and homeless kid who was forced to live in cars from time to time, I knew that Carlson grew up in a life with some privilege and opportunity

“Surely,” I said to myself when I saw him, “he’s going to come off as some entitled frat boy coasting through life.”

But it was the opposite. As much as liberals may hate to hear this — and won’t believe it — from the moment I first spoke with Carlson, he also came across as kind, down-to-earth, intellectually curious, with a real sense of humor. Though he was young, he struck me as being mature beyond his years.     

We stayed in touch from time to time over the years, and I found him to be a serious person who had become, like me, distrustful of the entrenched elites from every political party — those who run the world but rarely seem to have the welfare of the masses at heart.

I offer this brief personal history because Jon Stewart recently unloaded on Tucker Carlson in a mean-spirited, accusatory way. During an interview this week on the podcast of the New York Times’s Kara Swisher, Stewart said of Carlson’s Fox News commentaries on Russian President Vladimir Putin and his war on Ukraine: “When you deal with such a dishonest propagandist — and that is what he is — there’s nothing you can take out of context, because none of it is real. He’s admitted when he’s cornered, he lies. It’s all a game and a performance. I mean, honestly, I have no idea what the [expletive] that guy believes, truly.”     

Again, I know Stewart has a first-rate mind and he generally has never come across as a partisan operative. He labeled Carlson a “dishonest propagandist” apparently because Carlson has urged caution about the United States getting involved in the Ukraine crisis.     

Yet a number of people have expressed the same caution as Carlson. At the very least, it is a subject worthy of debate — but debate without insults or obscenities. With his verbal assault against Carlson, Stewart sounds like one more partisan hack from the left attacking Fox News and its most-watched commentator. He is much better than that. Unfortunately, during the interview, Stewart doubled down by accusing Rupert Murdoch, the media tycoon who founded Fox News, of “trying to destroy the fabric of this country.”     

I can guarantee that in response to such a comment, tens of millions of conservative Americans would say to Stewart: “Are you kidding me? Have you ever watched CNN and MSNBC, or read The New York Times or Washington Post?” All of these media outlets, and others, have demonstrated partisanship. Conservatives also have argued that liberals have tried to destroy “the fabric of our country.”

The back and forth arguments, though, help no one. Instead of insulting Carlson, Murdoch and Fox News, how much better would it be if Stewart would agree to go on Carlson’s show — or if Carlson would agree to debate Stewart on a forum of his choosing? Both men could present their thoughts on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the world in general.     

The tragedy unfolding in the Ukraine, on top of two years of the pandemic, reinforces the fact that our world is in a dangerous, politically polarized place. Instead of the usual partisan shouting matches and insult slinging, which gets us nowhere, wouldn’t it be nice if two good people who strongly disagree on certain topics could lay out their positions in a civil way before the American people, and then shake hands?

Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration.

Tags Bob Dole Fox News hyper-partisanship John McCain Jon Stewart liberals Right-wing populism Sam Donaldson Tucker Carlson Vladimir Putin

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