Two very different stages were full of people Thursday night. One, in Cleveland, was a platform for the first tier of Republican presidential hopefuls — all ten of them.
The other, in New York City, provided a gathering space for Daily Show alumni as host Jon Stewart ended his run as the only American political commentator who matters.
The Republican forum was actually a doubleheader. Since there wasn’t a stage big enough (or a national attention span, either) for all 17 declared candidates, a “happy hour” round, featuring low-polling contenders, preceded the main event.
Fox News, the all-but-official network of the Republican Party, served as host for this red state jamboree. Fox’s role as party arbiter was clear from the opening bell, when talking head Brett Baier started the so-called questions by asking the assembled candidates: “Is there anyone onstage — and can I see hands — who is unwilling tonight to pledge your support to the eventual nominee of the Republican Party and pledge to not run an independent campaign against that person?”
This, of course, was aimed directly at Donald Trump, the only one of the group to stick his mitt in the air. The leader in pre-debate polling, Trump is also a wild card, a guy whose lineage as part of the Republican family is doubtful.
Trump ran with this opening. His upraised palm stood for his unwillingness to play by the rather sketchy rules passing for party discipline these days.
This event was called a “debate,” but it was really an opportunity for the candidates to trot out whatever parts of their respective resumes they considered most advantageous. In doing so, they seemed less interested in speaking to voters than to potential big money donors. Since no one candidate scored a resounding victory or suffered a terminal humiliation, the only way to gauge who won will be to see where, in the next few days, the money streams.
Try as they might to crack wise, these men (yes, all the Ten were men — Carly Fiorina being the only woman in the entire Republican field. She was roundly awarded a win at the Happy Hour event, perhaps by way of making sure there will be a woman on stage next time.) tended to confuse oneupmanship with humor.
But Republicans spend so much of their time being outraged about going to hell in handbaskets that humor gets short shrift in their vicinity. They forget that humor is a way, not just of coping, but understanding the actual dimensions of things.
Maybe this is why so few of them have chosen to be interviewed by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. Stewart used humor to explore issues outside the lines of conventional wisdom as decreed by both parties. For many of us who enjoyed, and then came to rely, on his version of events, Stewart used humor as a way to make politics legible in terms of shared experience.
This made Jon Stewart the most trusted broadcaster since Walter Cronkite. He will be missed in ways those Republican candidates can only dream about.