Former The Daily Show host Jon Stewart briefly came out of retirement to shame members of Congress — or “worst responders” — over their inability to renew the 9/11 healthcare bill for first responders.
A visibly angry and frustrated Jon Stewart made his triumphant return to The Daily Show on Monday night for his first appearance on the show since retiring in August. The former host crept up on his successor Trevor Noah to loud cheers from the crowd before sitting down to urge the renewal of the Zadroga Act, a bill that recently expired that provides testing and treatment for 9/11 first responders.
“Oh, wait, wait, wait, sh*t. Are you here to take the show back?” Noah asked a bearded and T-shirt clad Stewart, fearing he’d been “Lenoed.” “I heard about this in American TV,” he added, referencing The Tonight Show situation from a few years back.
Stewart assured him that he was not there to take back his job, but instead wanted to talk about an issue that he cares deeply about, but without his own show, no longer had the platform to address. The issue at hand was the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which was named for the first NYPD officer whose death was attributed to exposure to toxic chemicals from his time rescuing people from the rubble of the World Trade Center following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Stewart explained that he hopes it can be permanently extended to continue funding health programs for thousands of firefighters, cops, and EMTs who suffer from illnesses due to their work at ground zero. Stewart helped get the bill passed five years ago back in 2010, and it went into effect the following year. However, the act expired at the beginning of October.
“Of course there was no reason not to renew it permanently, but they did not renew it anyway” he exasperatedly explained. “It’s soon going to be out of money. These first responders, many sick with cancers and pulmonary disease, have had to travel at their own expense to Washington, D.C., hundreds of times to plead for our government to do the right thing.”
“The only conclusion I can draw is that the people of Congress are not as good a people as the people who are first responders,” he declared, before comparing the politicians to meerkats or prairie dogs who hide and get back into their hole if they sense danger or receive information that they don’t like.
Stewart then found out for himself what it’s like to be a Daily Show correspondent. In his very first field piece for the show, the former host traveled to Capitol Hill to see if he could meet with several Republican senators who had once tweeted “Never Forget 9/11” but had not yet signed on to support the re-authorization of the Zadroga bill, including visits to the offices of Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Rob Portman of Ohio. The comic was met with blank stares, polite dismissals, boasts about how many cranberries are grown in Wisconsin, and pleas not to film inside the congressional chambers by the elected officials’ aides and staffers.
“These guys are all dying,” Stewart told Portman’s communications director. “So we would like to stop that.” He was later successful in talking with Sen. Portman, who pledged that he would support the bill as long as they found a way to pay for it. The senator signed onto the bill that evening. “Maybe shame does work,” Stewart concluded.
He then took particular aim at Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, deeming him “an enormous obstacle, unwilling to move the bill forward for purely political reasons.” He claimed that the senior senator from Kentucky was exacting revenge “when he didn’t get concessions about loosening oil-export regulations,” while also pointing out that he had previously pushed a similar bill to benefit sick workers in his home state. It turns out that the votes for the extension are there in both chambers of Congress, but Republican leadership could still kill it. Stewart was more optimistic about the new House Speaker Paul Ryan, who he believes will get on board, because “ultimately, he is still human.”
In the most emotional moment of the episode, Noah suggested that perhaps they should recreate the panel of first responders from the 2010 episode of The Daily Show that helped get the bill passed the first time around, prompting Stewart to walk over to a nearly empty table. Retired firefighter Kenny Specht, the panel’s sole remaining member, explained that two of the other members have serious illnesses that prohibited them from attending, while another had passed away.
“Five and a half years ago we did a show. Seventy-five percent of the panel is no longer here,” he said. “Two of the people have illnesses and, obviously, by law, I can’t comment on how sick they are, and John Devlin, who sat at the last chair, an operating engineer, passed away since our show. So I think we brought the statistics to show that, when we did the show five and a half years ago, four men sat here. Now it’s just you and I.”
Specht revealed that McConnell stated last week that he supported a permanent extension of the healthcare program as long as Congress could find funding for it, something that Specht promised to hold him to, but lamented that his words were by no means a guarantee. “They keep moving the goalposts and they keep telling us there’s things we have to do, and when we do it, it’s not enough,” he explained.
Stewart then turned to the camera and urged viewers — Kentuckians in particular — to use social media to implore McConnell and other lawmakers to support the renewal of the Zadroga act by using the hashtag #WorstResponders, which continues to trend on Twitter.
“With all this talk about terrorism, from the World Trade Center to San Bernardino, the one common link to all of this is the first people on the scene were first responders,” Stewart reminded Daily Show viewers. “This is the legacy.” Watch the second segment below:
While it was great to see that Stewart is still fired up about a cause that is near and dear to his heart, it also served as a sad reminder that he is sorely missed on TV and within the realm of politics at this crucial time in our country’s history. He also demonstrated that Noah does not yet possess the amount of influence nor emotional heft to deal with delicate topics, as evidenced by his unmemorable reactions to recent tragedies.
However, it’s still far too early to dismiss Noah’s hiring as a failure as some media outlets have already done. Daily Show fans may recall that it took Stewart some time to find his footing as well, fully coming into his own during the Bush years, which were a few years into his tenure as host (Stewart succeeded Craig Kilborn as host of The Daily Show in 1999). Noah, who has been at the job for only two and a half months, deserves the same amount of patience and room to grow as a performer in the months and years to come, but matching Stewart’s emotional connection with the audience and the issues that they care about may prove to be a difficult task.