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Jon Stewart’s Risk in Rallying

Jon Stewart and his staff are insisting that their Rally to Restore Sanity will be merely a comedic call for calm.

But in the buildup to the event on Saturday, you get the distinct impression that Stewart, whether he likes it or not, has long passed the point of being able to fall back on claims of satirical superficiality. If he gets a big turnout, and no one knows just how many will show up, talk will turn to Stewart’s ability to organize something akin to a movement, albeit with a smirk.

His interview with President Obama on Wednesday was probably just the kind of conversation that many progressives would like to have with the commander-in-chief: How did hope become hesitation, or, as Stewart put it, a penchant for being “timid.”

Although he was on the defensive, Obama handled it well, and officially, the White House seemed pleased, even if it may have been more of a challenge that realized. Robert Gibbs said on Thursday that Stewart “is about as good an interviewer as there is in the public domain right now.”

Stewart has a rather delicate task of being funny without being frivolous, and being serious without being overbearing. His position isn’t quite what it is was like for Oprah Winfrey in endorsing Barack Obama and going out on the trail for him. She commands a much larger and broader audience, and her decision to break her public neutrality carried an element of surprise. Stewart long ago gave away that he comes from the left of center.

Nevertheless, it will be hard to counter the perception that the rally is anything other than a counterweight to Glenn Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor in September, or that it is a kind of Hail Mary pass among disaffected liberals sensing doom on Tuesday.

A number of progressive orgs and get-out-the-vote groups are tying events to the rally, hoping to capitalize on the energy and, in the Democrats case, that it will translate into a better-than-expected day on Tuesday. The exact agenda of the rally is being kept closely guarded, but among the names that have leaked out are Sheryl Crow, who has long been activity in liberal politics and environmental causes.

But Stewart’s interview with Obama was an indication that while he has a mastery of blending humor with seriousness, he’s not going to fall in line.

“Politicians want to share their wares with us, and we enjoy exploiting their naiveté,” he kidded his Tuesday audience at the Shakespeare Theater’s Sidney Harman Hall, where “The Daily Show” is being taped. Yet the comedian adroitly sidestepped opportunities to opine about the shape of political discourse in the U.S. by assailing favorite targets. “The 24-hour news cycle controls the dialogue in this country, which is less than helpful,” he said.

That gift was also on display Tuesday during a discussion with retiring Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) about the U.S. Senate. “So to sum up, the system is corrupt and broken – exactly as it was designed to be,” he mused to hearty applause.

When asked who would be at the event, he said during a Q&A session with the audience, “Hey, we’ve got interesting things planned. We’re going to put on a fun rally, so just relax and chill out.”

A Comedy Central publicist said the global media interest for the rally was “off the charts,” and that it’s impossible to predict the numbers that will attend on Saturday. (She also assures that there will be enough Portajohns at the event).

One thing that you can just see coming: If there is a really big turnout, it won’t been too long before Stewart is routinely subject to the politicos’ answer to the Q score: favorable-unfavorability ratings, all ripe for his skewer.

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