Thursday, February 3, 2005

It is award time in America. In all the precincts of intellectual and cultural endeavor, the hubbub begins.

Even in sport, the excitement is felt. Will this year’s Most Valuable Player in the NFL be a defensive player, an offensive player or an acquitted rapist?

And, of course, there are the Pulitzers. The ones I follow most closely are the Pulitzers for fiction and for journalism, though the two categories have become blurred in recent years.

This year I am told the Pulitzer Prize Committee has tightened it requirements, ensuring the leading contenders for fiction are even more obscure than in the past, and possibly even more delightfully trivial. Moreover it is almost guaranteed that none of this year’s Pulitzers in journalism will go to plagiarists or even to simple fabricators. Many otherwise likely candidates have died or are studying for the bar.

Some, for instance, the New York Times’ most prodigious faker, Jayson Blair, have written sufficiently dreadful nonfiction books to put them in the running for this year’s J. Gordon Coogler Award for the Worst Book of the Year.

Yet the Coogler Committee has its standards. Its distinguished judges will not consider a writer who has been found guilty of journalistic irregularity. And being a plagiarist certainly constitutes journalistic irregularity as does working for the New York Times. OK, OK all you New York Times journalists out there, that was just an easy joke. There is no reason for those scowls. I am just having a little fun, and I know the day will come again when we open our Times for something other than those marmoreal obituaries that remain your strength.

Anyway this year’s Coogler has already been chosen. The Committee took a chance. It has conferred this year’s Worst Book of the Year award on an author who has become a revered American institution. A man honored by the intelligentsia of televisionland as “a humorist who makes you think.” He is candid, tough-minded, possessed of an infallible feces detector and innovative. He is Jon Stewart, star of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” not to be missed by televisionland’s sophisticates and troubled 17-year-olds.

Mr. Stewart has with a small team of gag writers written “America: A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy.” It is a satire, a pasquinade, a hoot at the American polity, a bemanuring of the High and Mighty. Mr. Stewart is extremely learned, knowing every nook and cranny of pop culture and most of the undergraduate liberal arts curriculum of Brown University.

He is the talk show equivalent of the television football commentator who knows “the stats” on every ballplayer in the NFL and can throw in a heart-warming anecdote on each, even the convicted felons. That is why it is so risky for the J. Gordon Coogler Award Committee to give its Worst Book of the Year award to Mr. Stewart. He is almost a Holy Person to the idolizers of pop culture. Like Michael Kinsley: He Makes You Laugh, which raises the question why did Mr. Kinsley not get a television show on Comedy Central?

Here are some of Mr. Stewart’s incomparable laughquakes from America. “Though Ronald Reagan [1980-1989] was not considered Kennedyesque, many historians believe he was among our most Reaganesque commanders in chief.” Page 38. “The name of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Wisconsin Republican, became synonymous with an era, not unlike his colleague Rep. Pleistocene, Minnesota Democrat.” Page 61.

“The one area Kerry was decidedly unKennedyesque was with the ladies. He lost his virginity his senior year only after an intense lobbying and letter-writing campaign aimed at persuading the school slut to ‘grant him franking privileges.’ ” Page 5.

Oh, and there is another made-for-television joke on Page 192 about the lone protester at Tiananmen Square suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. What did I tell you about Mr. Stewart’s feces detector?

Now admittedly Mr. Stewart is also a bit of an idealist. Students of media will for many years marvel at his appearance on the moribund CNN show “Crossfire” where in the guise of a 21st century muckraker he accused an astonished Paul Begala and his sidekick Tucker Carlson of “hurting America.” “Stop, stop, stop, stop, hurting America,” this later-day Ida Tarbell implored.

And of what were the two talking heads guilty? They were “helping the politicians and the corporations.” What Mr. Stewart has against the corporations, or for that matter the politicians, was never made clear. But he did seem very irate about the superficiality of “Crossfire,” where the so-called liberal Mr. Begala has been pitted against Mr. Carlson, the Mini-Con.

Now Mr. Stewart has this infantile book as his intellectual legacy. Alas, it has made him the Coogler Laureate for 2004. If you really think he is any more sophisticated than these other creatures of televisionland, Mr. Begala and Mr. Carlson, read the book. It will not take long. It is mostly pictures.

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor in chief of the American Spectator, a contributing editor to the New York Sun, and adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute. His most recent book is “Madame Hillary: The Dark Road to the White House.”

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