Jon Stewart Is Leaving the Daily Show at the Right Time

He's departing before his shtick grows old.

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For his own sanity — and, perhaps, for ours — Jon Stewart couldn’t have picked a better time to announce he’ll be stepping away from The Daily Show.

To understand why, you only had to go back one night before his sudden, shocking Tuesday retirement announcement and watch Monday night’s episode of the show. The topic: NBC’s Brian Williams and his apparent record of mistruths when relating anecdotes about his experiences covering Iraq and some of the other big stories of the last decade or so.

Stewart’s take? Maybe lying is bad, but Brian Williams’ lies weren’t nearly as bad as … Dick Cheney’s lies.

You know. The ones from a decade ago.

As Variety reported about Monday’s episode:

Still, it was Stewart who turned the discussion back upon those media outlets expressing righteous indignation about Williams’ transgressions, essentially asking where they were when so many dutifully repeated Bush administration spin during the run-up to invading Iraq. Or as Stewart put it, pointedly, referencing Williams, “Finally, someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq war.”

Stewart’s clips included former New York Times editor Bill Keller and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, both giving themselves passing grades for Iraq coverage in hindsight, with Blitzer suggesting that journalism is merely a first draft of history.

Now here’s the thing: Stewart isn’t wrong about all this. The same media that may destroy Williams’ career over a few anecdotal transgressions has mostly given itself a free pass for its own conduct in the run-up to the Invasion of Iraq a decade ago. Wherever you find a media frenzy, you will always find media hypocrisy.

Still, the routine on Monday night — replete with video clips reminding us of how foolish our leaders were when taking us into an unnecessary war — felt familiar and maybe a little old. During the first decade of this century, Jon Stewart was one of America’s foremost critics and satirists of George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.

Six years into the Obama Administration, Jon Stewart has evolved into … one of America’s foremost critics and satirists of George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.

That’s a bit harsh. Even off his prime, Stewart most nights was the funniest, smartest thing going in late-night TV. (Last year, he gave us one of the most hilarious all-time anti-Philly rants ever recorded.) Now that he’s leaving and Stephen Colbert is ditching politics for the more entertainment-oriented Late Show slot at CBS, a high point of American political satire is passing.

But it’s probably also the case that Stewart is leaving before his shtick can get too old.

During the 1980s and ’90s, it was fun — if perplexing — to watch old lefties who never quite got over their decades-long hatred of Richard Nixon. He’d driven them batty so long that even after he resigned in disgrace, they couldn’t quite let go of him. That anger animated their ideas and arguments, even their reading lists. It’s as though Nixon Hate had become an animating life force, an end unto itself.

I’ve sometimes wondered if my generation of liberals is going to do the same thing with George W. Bush. Certainly, I’ve been guilty of it. Here’s the beginning of a syndicated column I wrote a couple of months ago for Tribune News Service:

Sometimes it’s easy to be a liberal columnist. All you have to do is look at what Republicans are complaining about this week, check the headlines from a decade or so ago, then report to your readers: “But George W. Bush did it, too!”

Readers, when it comes to using executive agreements to bypass the Senate and its treaty-approval powers, I’ve got to tell you: George W. Bush did it, too.

Yes, that’s how I wrote the entirety of the column ostensibly about Barack Obama: By writing hundreds of words about the decade-old record of his predecessor.

I wasn’t wrong, exactly. Precedents and history guide the decisions we make today, letting us know where the parameters are. But a “Bush did it too!” argument doesn’t tell us much, really, and those of us who cling to the obsession risk becoming tedious irrelevancies.

That hasn’t happened to Stewart, yet. But as he went through the motions on Monday night, you couldn’t help but feel you’d seen his routine hundreds, maybe thousands of times before. Certainly, Stewart himself had to be aware of it: He’d sat at the anchor desk for all of them.

So he’s right to step away (Comedy Central has announced he’ll remain at the helm “until later this year”), try something new and stretch himself creatively while he still can. There’s only so many times you can shout that the emperor has no clothes before you grow hoarse from the yelling.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.