As Jon Stewart prepares to wrap up his time at “The Daily Show,” recent reports surfaced that the comedian had visited the White House in 2011 and 2014 to meet with President Obama. The visits, which were previously unreported, brought speculation and, in many cases, suspicion to conversations about Stewart’s relationship with the administration.
But for people familiar with that relationship, the reports were not a surprise. Obama strategist David Axelrod told Politico that Stewart had an effect on national conversations around policy, even within the administration. “I can’t say that because Jon Stewart was unhappy policy changed. But I can say that he had forceful arguments, they were arguments that we knew would be heard and deserved to be answered,” Axelrod said.
While Stewart stressed that the show was merely a comedic counterpoint to the politics it covered, there were several occasions on which the show and its alums crossed into the world of policy. We look back at several of those moments below.
1. Jon Stewart helps push a bill forward for 9/11 first responders and their families.
By 2010, 9/11 first responders had waited nearly 10 years for a bill that would give them health care for injuries and illnesses resulting from their service. Those first responders suffered from a range of medical problems that were directly caused by their contact with toxic debris at Ground Zero. When the Senate voted down a bill that would have paid for their medical costs — a bill that had already been in the works for years — Stewart gathered a group of first responders on his show to give a moving testimony on their health issues post-9/11.
Shortly afterward, the bill passed in Congress, allocating $6.2 billion to health care for first responders suffering from illness and providing compensation for families of people who had died in the attacks. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) told ABC News at the time that Stewart had put a renewed focus on the issue. “This bill has long been a huge priority for us in New York, but Jon’s attention to this helped turn it into the national issue it always should have been,” Schumer said.
First responders themselves agreed. “What took us eight years of walking the halls of Congress, Jon Stewart in 22 minutes literally moved mountains and gave us a heartbeat again when we were flat-lined,” John Feal, an Army veteran who worked to clean up the wreckage from 9/11, told Politico.
2. Stephen Colbert testifies before Congress on migrant labor.
“The Colbert Report” host’s comedic surprise for Congress came after the comedian participated in a United Farm Workers challenge to people to fill the place of a migrant worker for a day. He appeared in front of the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security on April 24, 2010, in character, injecting some serious points about the role of migrant labor in the U.S. with his particular brand of satire.
Colbert noted that the topic was important to address. “It seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don’t have any rights as a result,” he said. “But yet we still invite them to come here, and at the same time ask them to leave.”
And he had some creative ideas about how to address the issue. “As you heard this morning, America’s farms are presently far too dependent on immigrant labor to pick our fruits and vegetables … The obvious answer is for all of us to stop eating fruits and vegetables,” he said. “And if you look at the recent obesity statistics, you’ll see that many Americans have already started.”
3. Stephen Colbert establishes a super PAC.
As the 2012 presidential election approached, Colbert had a dream: “to fashion a massive money cannon that would make all those who seek the White House quake with fear and beg our allegiance … in strict accordance with federal election law.”
That dream was made possible by the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which had loosened restrictions on campaign finance in January 2010. The Federal Elections Commission approved Colbert’s application to create the super PAC in June 2011, and Colbert established a Delaware-based corporation called the “Colbert Super PAC SHH Institute,” through which anonymous, unlimited donations could be funneled to the super PAC. Colbert said the money would go toward “normal administrative expenses, including but not limited to, luxury hotel stays, private jet travel and PAC mementos from Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus.”
Puzzling to some and hilarious to others, the process was entirely legal, showing the effects of the Citizens United decision in real time. “The Colbert Report” won a Peabody Award for the episodes on the super PAC. “Through inventive comedy, sight gags and mock-strident rhetoric, ‘The Colbert Report’ used its ‘megaphone of cash’ to illuminate the far-ranging effects on our politics of the Citizens United decision,” the Peabody Awards said in a statement.
4. The VA changes its policy on health care for veterans after a Daily Show segment criticizes it.
In May 2014, the VA was facing a public scandal. Officials at the Phoenix VA hospital had lied about the long wait times at their facility, where veterans faced an average wait of 115 days for a primary care appointment. Meanwhile, veterans could only receive private care under the Veterans Choice Program if they lived outside a 40-mile radius from a VA center. The radius was measured in a straight line and did not account for road lengths or travel time, preventing many veterans who lived further away from receiving care.
Jon Stewart slammed the 40-mile standard, also called the “as the crow flies” method. “That is the least meaningful way to judge how hard it is to get somewhere for non-crows,” Stewart said.
Shortly after the segment aired, the VA changed the rule to measure the distance by driving miles. Now the VA does not credit Stewart with influencing the change, but the host took some credit for the change on the show. The new rule doubled the amount of veterans that qualified for private care, CBS News reported.
5. John Oliver inspires a Washington state bill aimed at increasing civic engagement.
In June 2014, a segment on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” implored viewers to voice their concerns about an upcoming decision on net neutrality on the Federal Communications Commission’s website. The next day, the FCC’s site crashed.
It is unknown whether the crash was due to an Oliver-inspired comment flood — but it definitely galvanized Washington state senator Cyrus Habib, who soon introduced a bill aimed at allowing citizens to comment on public policy online. Habib credited John Oliver with inspiring the bill.
“Here’s a guy who likes to take boring topics and make them interesting,” Habib said. “If you can do that for an administrative process like the FCC on net neutrality, imagine the level of interest in issues people are even more familiar with at the state level.” The bill is still pending in the Washington state senate.
Watch PBS NewsHour Thursday night for a closer look at Jon Stewart’s legacy as host of “The Daily Show.”