A few days before I spoke with Jon Stewart about his USO tour in Afghanistan, Bob Hope’s widow, Dolores, died at age 102. The obituary in The New York Times noted that she accompanied her husband on a Christmas United Service Organizations tour to Vietnam and sang “Silent Night” to the troops. They cried. Her husband sent her home the next day.
“The last thing these guys needed was sentiment,” Hope explained. “Dolores became their mother. What they needed was Raquel Welch.”
Stewart laughed. “Yeah, Karl Malone is no Raquel Welch substitute.”
Malone, the former Utah Jazz basketball star, accompanied Stewart on his trip this summer, along with magician/performance artist David Blaine.
“He is ‘The Mailman,’” Stewart said of Malone, “and he delivers, but not that. There is a part of you that goes, Boy this would be a beautiful place for the Washington Redskins cheerleaders. While I’m sure they’re happy to see close-up magic and subtle, sarcastic wit, I think they could also have used a little jolt of electricity.”
Stewart sat behind his unmilitarily cluttered desk in his corner office in the loft above The Daily Show studio in New York City. One of his windows looks out on a small leafy park across the street. The previous Sunday, he and his team won two more Emmys—including the show’s ninth consecutive win for best variety show.
Our subject was the tour and his history with the USO, an organization that transports this smasher of icons and kicker of pedestals to a zero-irony zone of admiration and awe: “They are a ridiculously dedicated group of professionals.”
Over the years, he has made numerous “wounded warrior” visits to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the Bethesda Naval Hospital.
“It’s an incredible experience,” he says. “From the first one that I ever did until now, always the thing that strikes you the most is they’re thankful you’re there. It’s the most shocking part.”
He shakes his head. “They’ll say to you, ‘Thank you so much.’ The guy who’s been clearing mines in Helmand province and has just lost a leg. ‘Hey, thank you so much.’ And you’re like, Really? You want to say, ‘You know, you’re right, I am the real hero here. Coming down to see you. You know that traffic on I-95? That Delaware Corridor? That is never not backed up.’ ”
I asked how he prepped for the Afghanistan tour of a dozen-odd forward operating bases.
“You get shots for as many 17th-century illnesses as you possibly can,” he laughed. “If somebody does offer you a street taco, you say, ‘You know, I think I’m going to stick with the Meals Ready to Eat.’”
His host was his good friend Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The format was “not the Bob Hope thing,” which is to say, large shows. “Not in the summertime, when it’s 120 degrees out,” he says with a smile, “much as they might be entertained by clever stories about your children. The truth is, they kind of want to get in, shake your hand, and pour distilled water on their heads.”
He described a moment on the way over during a re-fueling stop.
“We landed in Shannon, Ireland. One Guard unit from Mississippi was going home. And one Guard was going back to the war, after a two-week break. So you had this sort of strange ships-passing-in-the-night. There was a jubilation, exhaustion, but a real sense of relief in the group that was coming down the walkway. And you had this other group which was ... they weren’t despondent, but it definitely was a ‘All right, boys, strap it back on. Glad you enjoyed those two weeks at home. We’re heading back—’ ” He pauses. “There’s no aspect of it that’s not humbling.”
Once in the war zone, the idea was to get out to as many bases—some of which he wouldn’t name for security reasons—and “hit as many hands as possible.”
Was there any actual entertaining?
‘You just immediately feel a tremendous surge of pride-stoked adrenaline. If you can give them some small distraction from what they face, by God you’re gonna.’
He nodded. “Yeah. You do improv. ‘Where you from? What do you do?’ You always imagine yourself to be Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam. Nobody’s at that level, but you do what you can in their environment. There was a lot of ‘Boys, it’s so nice to be here with you. I had no idea at what temperature testicles melted. Now I know.’ You’re just trying to connect with what they’re going through.
“When you fly into a base [Kandahar] and you see a giant open sewage pit right next to what appears to be a small walkway with a KFC on it—that’s probably something notorious at this airfield. And so you can talk about that. And it turns out it is. It’s ‘Poo Lake.’ And they talk about it pretty frequently.” He paused to correct his memory, “Poo Pond.”
“I’ll give you a moment that was stunning. We’re at—I believe this was Bagram [air base]. And they had set up a little meet-and-greet for Karl, David, and myself. We’d been out all day down in the south of Afghanistan and it’s hot and these guys are coming off missions. They fly us back up. And it’s—we’ve flown a lot and everyone’s tired. It’s probably about 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock now, and everyone’s been going since about 6 in the morning.
“And you land, and you’re wiped. And it’s still 100 degrees, and you look out, and there’s people jogging. Trying to stay in physical condition during all this. And then you see this huge line of soldiers. And you think, Well, what’s going on over there? And someone leans in and says, ‘Oh, that’s for you guys. They came out to see you guys.’
“And you just immediately feel a tremendous surge of pride-stoked adrenaline, a sense that if you can give them some small distraction from the day to day trials and tribulation of what they face, by God you’re gonna.
“And so you walk in there, and you’re filled with piss and vinegar, and you’re ready to dance as fast as you can, to do whatever you can do for them.
“So we come out and I do a little song and dance and we start to bring people up to do pictures. And they come in a long line.”
He smiled. “You’d be surprised how efficiently the Army can move a line of people. My guess is they do it better than the Jonas Brothers people do theirs, though the lines may be smaller and not quite as shrieky.
“And in the middle of that, someone announces, ‘Moment of silence, please.’ And everybody goes quiet. What I found out later was they had suffered casualties, a mortar attack on the base. And this was the moment they were sending their brothers and sisters home. Putting them on a plane. It was a moment of silence and they understood its meaning. Everybody understood. Everybody bowed their heads. And when it was over, everybody jumped back into real life. And it was as stark and as organic a juxtaposition as you could have.”
In an email Admiral Mullen wrote me about Stewart, “There was an instant connection, right there at our first stop in Afghanistan. You could just see the troops light up when they saw him. They were drawn to him. He was just terrific. And let me tell you, it was plenty hot over there in late July. But he made time for everyone he met, and it was as genuine an interaction, really of deep respect, as you’ll ever see. I’m not sure who was happier, him or them.”
I asked Stewart how one of the most scathing opponents of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq ended up at the bedside of wounded warriors at Walter Reed, Bethesda Naval, and doing improv on the shores of Poo Pond.
“One of the reasons that I got involved,” he said, “was my opposition to it. I had very strong feelings about it. But I also felt that I was indignant without knowledge. And I wanted knowledge from the people that were asked to carry this out. They are some of the brightest, most engaging, funny, down-to-earth, respectful, intelligent group of people that I’ve ever met. But what it did,” he added, “was solidify my outrage, rather than lessen it.”
We talked about Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, all of whom have written their books, which are largely of the if-I-had-to-do-it-all-over-again-I-would flavor.
Stewart laughed—a moment of irony, or Zen, was finally at hand.
“Well,” he said, “I’m glad that in the time they’ve had to reflect on it that they’ve realized how right they were. Because you read these books and you think”—his voice switching into mimetic gear—“‘I just needed time away from it to just realize how damn right I was.’”
The moment of irony passed. He went on, in a tone of controlled anger, “I’m not suggesting that their [the troops’] lives were in any way used casually. But they deserved the best strategic planning. They deserved the best in equipment. But mainly, they deserved the best in policy. Policy should rise to the level of their ability. And so when it doesn’t, or when it’s done in a way that you think is corrupt, it really makes you mad.”
“Corruption” is a word Stewart often deploys, but he doesn’t go in for the Halliburton theory or the Oedipal or the other one-size-fits-all conspiracist explanations for Bush’s Iraq War. He is not a dispenser of smug outrage in the style of Bill Maher or Keith Olbermann. In an interview a year ago with Rachel Maddow, he was dismissive of the “war criminal” label, telling her with a bemused expression that this was a term he reserved for, say, Pol Pot.
“Corruption,” he told me, “can be a corruption of ideas. To have a group sit in a room and say, ‘OK, here are five reasons why we should go in. Which one do you think will be the easiest one to sell?’ To go into a war—and this was a point I tried to make with [former Pentagon official] Doug Feith when he was on the show. And with Rumsfeld, as well. To take us into a war but treat it like a policy campaign—to me is corrupt. The conversation they [Bush et al.] had with the American people was,” again switching into mime mode, “‘We’re all gonna die! There’s a smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud!’ That’s the part that I think is corrupt.
“The most corrupt thing to me about this, and this gets back to what Dick Cheney said about why we didn’t go into Baghdad [after Operation Desert Storm in 1991], ‘Who would we turn it over to? It’s not worth American blood and treasure.’”
After the second time, in 2003, when America very much went into Baghdad, “I asked Doug Feith once, ‘Well, what changed?’ And,” he says, imitating the verbal shrug of a boilerplate answer, 'Well, you know, the nexus of terror.’
“And I said, ‘No. No. What changed with the idea of who you were going to turn it over to?’ That’s the part that was so galling. You had a policy of regime change, but you didn’t have a policy of what came next. You didn’t have anything in place.”
His assistant Beth knocks on the door. Time’s up.
Walking outside into the September mugginess, I crossed the street to the little leafy park to sit on a bench and make some notes. There’s a statue there of a World War I doughboy, the inevitable pigeon perched atop his helmet. The inscription on the base reads,
FROM "FLANDERS FIELD"
IF YE BREAK FAITH
WITH THOSE WHO DIED
WE SHALL NOT SLEEP
THOUGH POPPIES GROW
ON FLANDERS FIELD
On the other side it says,
MEMORIAL DAY 1930
BY COMRADES AND FRIENDS
UNDER THE AUSPICES OF
CLINTON DISTRICT MONUMENT
ASSOCIATION AS A MEMORIAL
TO THE YOUNG FOLKS OF THIS
NEIGHBORHOOD WHO GAVE
THEIR ALL IN THE WORLD WAR