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Jon Stewart's Private White House Meetings


The other big TV event on Thursday night will be Jon Stewart's final "Daily Show." We came across a strange item this past week about Stewart and our current president. On at least two occasions, President Obama summoned Jon Stewart to the White House for secret meetings. Politico's Darren Samuelsohn first reported those meetings, and he writes that Stewart's influence increased as that of real news anchors faded. So I asked him if he thought Stewart should be treated the same as, say, Lester Holt if he were having under-the-radar meetings with the president.

DARREN SAMUELSOHN: Certainly, when the news got out, it exploded from the right. People saying, oh, look this is an example of Jon Stewart as a shill for President Obama. I don't buy that. I think it reinforced the message that Jon Stewart was someone that the administration saw as very important to them. But Stewart has really fought hard that notion that he's a journalist. He's a comic who reads the headlines and does them in a funny way.

RATH: Now, Jon Stewart did talk with Larry Wilmore on "The Nightly Show," which is conveniently produced by Jon Stewart.

SAMUELSOHN: (Laughter).

RATH: Here's what he had to say to the question we all had.


LARRY WILMORE: What did he want?

JON STEWART: What'd he want?

WILMORE: Yes, what did he want?

STEWART: Hang out, eat nachos.


STEWART: Watch "King Ralph."


WILMORE: The John Goodman movie where he becomes king of England?

STEWART: [Expletive], don't pretend like you haven't seen "King Ralph."

RATH: So seriously, though, what did President Obama want?

SAMUELSOHN: Jon Stewart went on in the next night to talk quite a bit about what that conversation was like - a couple minutes of President Obama giving Jon Stewart his pitch and Jon Stewart coming back and giving the president his piece of mind. And then they ate some pretty good salmon, apparently.

But, you know, for Jon Stewart it's an opportunity to obviously engage and hear what the president has to say. And Obama - from their perspective, they see it as an opportunity to work one of the umps. And Jon Stewart has been punching the administration now and again over the course of these last seven years, whether it be negotiating with Republicans early on or the Obamacare website catastrophe.

RATH: Well, people often talk in general terms about Jon Stewart's influence, but run us through some specific examples where he's moved the needle on Capitol Hill or in the White House?

SAMUELSOHN: It's been on a couple of things - a lot of motherhood-apple pie issues. The first one that jumps out is the 9-11 first responders. Congress was trying to pass a bill that was going to provide billions of dollars in medical benefits for the cops and the firefighters and the people who went down to Ground Zero, and there was a big fight. The Republicans in the Senate who were filibustering a House-passed bill - Stewart really lambasted them, showed the hypocrisy between the 9-11 patriotism - that they'd been waving the flag and blocking of this bill.


STEWART: So guess what, Republicans? Here's the deal. Your we're-the-only-party-that-understands-9-11-and-its-repercussions monopoly ends now. So...


SAMUELSOHN: The bill moved pretty quickly thereafter. President Obama signed it by January. This was during the lame-duck Congress, as the House Democrats were about to cede control, and a lot of people called Jon Stewart, you know, their Christmas miracle.

RATH: You know, over the years, Jon Stewart has really downplayed his influence. When people talk about him being influential as new anchors, you know, he says he thinks that's basically silly, or that it's a sign of how messed up things are.


RATH: But now that we know he's having meetings with the president, he can't just kind of play the I'm just a funny guy thing anymore, right?

SAMUELSOHN: Well, obviously, he had President Obama on the show, I think, seven times over the course of President Obama's political career. So we've always known that he was engaging with - and seen as one of the stronger interviewers out there these days. I think Jay Carney, at one point, said that President Obama's interview with Jon Stewart in 2012 during the presidential election was one of the hardest interviews that he faced that year.

So, you know, Stewart and what his brand has done at the Comedy Central "Daily Show" has really, I think, changed the way, you know, journalists do their jobs. So to be able to kind of make things funny, to make things accessible, to really get into the weeds of policy, he's definitely done something with journalism that, you know, for the last 15, 16 years, you know, we weren't seeing before.

RATH: Darren Samuelsohn is Politico's senior policy reporter. Darren, thank you.

SAMUELSOHN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.