When Barack Obama gets called “dude” by a comedian with a fake-news cable program whose audience is a fraction of the size of Johnny Carson’s a quarter-century ago, you know we are deeply mired in an era in which American institutions, from the presidency to the late-night talk show, don’t wield the innate power they once naturally possessed. Authority figures themselves have spent so much time stripping themselves of the garb of authority—losing the tie, rolling up the sleeves, dropping the g’s, Tweeting—that they’ve stripped the authority from themselves as well.
What Jon Stewart did last week in calling the president “dude”—entirely spontaneously, which is why it’s important—was a profound act of cultural leveling. It’s one thing to assert that the president of the United States is no better than anyone else; that idea is built into the American DNA. It’s quite another to condescend to the office, to act as though the roles of president and fake-news-show host are parallel and equal.
Stewart is an intelligent man with a deeply perceptive sense of cultural boundaries: His first major cultural moment came when he upbraided Tucker Carlson on CNN for not being serious enough, and he is careful to protect his own brand by not getting too serious himself, though he is tempted to do so nightly. Stewart’s instincts told him at the moment he opened his mouth that he would not harm himself by calling the president “dude”—and he was right. Stewart gained from the exchange. The president and the presidency lost. Barack Obama revealed himself as an unauthoritative authority figure.
When an authority figure no longer radiates authority, he is no longer feared (see Machiavelli on the utility of causing fear as a means of exerting political will). Today’s unauthoritative authority figure might intimidate the people closest to him no less than an authority figure of an earlier age did. But in a democracy, an authority figure achieves dominion when the people invest him with that power. The affectation of egalitarian informality breaks down that authority bit by bit until it crumbles.
It has become axiomatic to many of Obama’s well-wishers and passionate supporters that something has gone wrong with his “communications skills.” That misses the point. His communications skills are just fine; terrific, in fact. Any of us would kill to have his communications skills. You really have to hate him as a precondition to finding him charmless, or uninteresting, or turgid. He’s none of those things. He’s an interesting shaper of sentences. He says things in unexpected ways.
He can communicate. What he seems unable to do any longer is persuade, to command the discussion rather than merely filibuster. And here is where the primary question raised by his appearance with Jon Stewart comes in: Can the Barack Obama who has devolved into Jon Stewart’s “dude” persuade anyone? Seems doubtful. Who can be swayed by a “dude”? A “dude” is someone who, by definition, you don’t have to listen to. A “dude” is someone entirely on your level, if not slightly below it. And if a “dude” is 49 years old, like Obama, and the guy calling him “dude” is 47 years old, like Jon Stewart, the two of them are already making themselves seem faintly ridiculous by having the word “dude” appear in their conversation—never mind that one is a major TV star and the other is the Leader of the Free World.
Twenty years ago, when the slacker teens Bill and Ted went journeying through time on an excellent adventure to finish a high school history project so that they could eventually save the universe, the joke in the movie was that these future saviors had so stunted a sense of the universe they were fated to save that they not only called each other “dude,” they called Napoleon and Socrates and Abraham
Lincoln “dude.” Obama went on Stewart’s show explicitly to seize the attention and imagination of the young—of the sort for whom Jon Stewart is their Walter Cronkite—whose attention he had captured in 2008. Given the colossal size of his vote total, he got more than a few contemporary Bills and Teds to wander to the polling place.
But with that one “dude,” Stewart instantly made it clear the distance his guest had traveled from the idealized figure of a leader for whom a vote was a cultural signpost, a way of expressing a hip sensibility, to a guest just like many of the hundreds of politicians who have visited The Daily Show—a straight man struggling to demonstrate that he is in on the joke. Only by calling the president “dude,” Jon Stewart wasn’t joking. Without meaning to do so, he exposed the corrosion of Barack Obama. The next two years will answer the question of whether that corrosion has rusted straight through.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.