Jon Stewart, Live at the USO

Article excerpt

Byline: Christopher Buckley

How America's most scathing liberal war critic ended up at the bedside of wounded warriors--and as outraged as ever.

A few days before I spoke with Jon Stewart about his USO tour in Afghanistan, Bob Hope's widow, Dolores, died at age 102. The obituary in The New York Times noted that she accompanied her husband on a Christmas United Service Organization tour to Vietnam and sang "Silent Night" to the troops. They cried. Her husband sent her home the next day.

"The last thing these guys needed was sentiment," Hope explained. "Dolores became their mother. What they needed was Raquel Welch."

Stewart laughed. "Yeah, Karl Malone is no Raquel Welch substitute."

Malone, the former Utah Jazz basketball star, accompanied Stewart on his trip this summer, along with magician/performance artist David Blaine.

"He is 'The Mailman,'?" Stewart said of Malone, "and he delivers, but not that. There is a part of you that goes, Boy this would be a beautiful place for the Washington Redskins cheerleaders. While I'm sure they're happy to see close-up magic and subtle, sarcastic wit, I think they could also have used a little jolt of electricity."

Stewart sat behind his unmilitarily cluttered desk in his corner office in the loft above The Daily Show studio in New York City. One of his windows looks out on a small leafy park across the street. The previous Sunday, he and his team won two more Emmys--including the show's ninth consecutive win for best variety show.

Our subject was the tour and his history with the USO, an organization that transports this smasher of icons and kicker of pedestals to a zero-irony zone of admiration and awe: "They are a ridiculously dedicated group of professionals."

Over the years, he has made numerous "wounded warrior" visits to Walter Reade Army Medical Center and the Bethesda Naval Hospital.

"It's an incredible experience," he says. "From the first one that I ever did until now, always the thing that strikes you the most is they're thankful you're there. It's the most shocking part."

He shakes his head. "They'll say to you, 'Thank you so much.' The guy who's been clearing mines in Helmand province and has just lost a leg. 'Hey, thank you so much.' And you're like, Really? You want to say, 'You know, you're right, I am the real hero here. Coming down to see you. You know that traffic on I-95? That Delaware Corridor? That is never not backed up.' "

I asked how he prepped for the Afghanistan tour of a dozen-odd forward operating bases.

"You get shots for as many 17th-century illnesses as you possibly can," he laughed. "If somebody does offer you a street taco, you say, 'You know, I think I'm going to stick with the Meals Ready to Eat.'?"

His host was his good friend Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The format was "not the Bob Hope thing," which is to say, large shows. "Not in the summertime, when it's 120 degrees out," he says with a smile, "much as they might be entertained by clever stories about your children. The truth is, they kind of want to get in, shake your hand, and pour distilled water on their heads."

He described a moment on the way over during a re-fueling stop.

"We landed in Shannon, Ireland. One Guard unit from Mississippi was going home. And one Guard was going back to the war, after a two-week break. So you had this sort of strange ships-passing-in-the-night. There was a jubilation, exhaustion, but a real sense of relief in the group that was coming down the walkway. And you had this other group which was ... they weren't despondent, but it definitely was a 'All right, boys, strap it back on. Glad you enjoyed those two weeks at home. We're heading back--' " He pauses. "There's no aspect of it that's not humbling."

Once in the war zone, the idea was to get out to as many bases--some of which he wouldn't name for security reasons--and "hit as many hands as possible. …