Since taking over "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central in 1999, 41-year-old Jon Stewart has turned the satirical news show into a comedic hit--and a major media player. The program is broadcast around the world on CNN International, and surveys show that more than 20 percent of young Americans look to satirical programs like "The Daily Show" as their primary source of news. Stewart and his writers on the program--responsible for some of the smartest critiques of the U.S. election campaign as well as the funniest--have just released a book, "America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction," which takes readers on a rip-roaringly funny journey through U.S. history. NEWSWEEK's Malcolm Beith spoke to America's most respected (in some circles) political pundit last week. Excerpts:

BEITH: Your show has gone from a relatively obscure cable show--

STEWART: To a more mildly obscure cable show.

But you're an internationally renowned media pundit now. How do you feel about that?

I feel truly then that the world must be very confused.

How do you feel about America's image abroad and how it's declined since September 11?

I hope it continues, because I'm really looking for some cheap travel rates. No, I'm fiercely protective over the United States. Because I just want to make it clear that the United States is not George Bush and it's not John Kerry--it's not one man.

What do you think of the U.S. media's coverage of the elections and the Iraq war?

I look forward to when they start their coverage. There has been an incredible change of pace since the Clinton years. In four years of this administration we've had really monumental issues: going to war with a country for reasons that turned out to be less than justified, meetings to develop energy policy where we're not allowed to know who went to the meetings, international intrigue in terms of gigantic war-profiteering contracts that went out no-bid to a company that the vice president happened to be the head of. Nobody got a "gate" on one of those. Janet Jackson showed her tit at the Super Bowl-- "Nipplegate." Immediately, Nipplegate. Who are the people in charge of giving out the gates? Is there a committee--a gategate? There seems to be an utter loss of perspective.

What's your political leaning? I read somewhere that your nickname is Lefty?

Lefty? I didn't realize that. That's actually a testicular condition. I've never been called that, but I do write left-handed.

But I denounce political leanings, if I may. I think it is the bane of the existence of this system. For God's sakes, right and left? Even the most basic of charts at least has a y-axis. It's silly to say that human thought is two-dimensional like this.

Lately on the show you've been coming down harder on President George W. Bush and his team--

But he started a war! [Critics] keep saying, "You took us to Iraq." [The Bush camp responds:] "Well, you voted for it." It's literally like saying, "You crashed the car"--"Well, you gave me the keys." "Well, yeah, 'cause we trusted you not to crash the car!"

How do you see the election shaping up?

Any pundit asked what's going to happen should answer the same way: "I have no f---ing idea." They don't, you don't, I don't--no one knows. No one should be on TV talking about it right now. [And] the idea that the Rasmussen poll in the swing states is not reflective of Zogby and Gallup should be of no interest to anyone--other than the people who work at Zogby, Gallup and Rasmussen.

By the way, I only said that because our internal polls show that the audience wants someone who is cynical about polls.

Hmm. How about you run for president?

See? I can do this. It's easy.

So, what's up with the undecideds?

I hope they're getting the attention that they so obviously crave. I'm very surprised that, with everything that has gone on, there [are] a lot of people out there who are thinking to themselves, "Geez, I really like President Bush's idea about health-savings accounts, but Kerry's got a fantastic Social Security plan." I don't think that's what's happening.

From a purely comic perspective, do you want four more years of Bush?

If given the choice between the smoldering ruins of the world and a good job in comedy, I would like to think I'm altruistic enough to give up my comedy job. Or just have a harder time accomplishing it.

Do you find it difficult to be lighthearted about some of these issues?

Absolutely. Absolutely. Many days start with a soul-crushing analysis of the state of the world. Then the entire digestive process of the show is to try and turn whimpers into laughter. But that's our process.

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