Mr. Stewart went to Washington. Once as an actor 70 years ago, and Tuesday as a real-life citizen fighting for fellow Americans. Both Mr. Stewarts made history by advocating justice.
The 1939 Hollywood blockbuster “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” made a legend of James “Jimmy” Stewart, who portrayed Jefferson Smith. The character, a political neophyte appointed to the Senate, crusaded against corruption and found himself facing expulsion.
“I’m going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause, even if this room gets filled with lies like these,” he said during a 25-hour filibuster. “When the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place, somebody’ll listen to me! Some…” the actor Stewart says as he faints on the Senate floor from exhaustion.
Comedian/actor Jon Stewart rivaled Mr. Smith this week, but it wasn’t a movie and he took less than 10 minutes. The former host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” Stewart sat before a House Judiciary subcommittee and shredded Congress for neglecting the needs of surviving first responders of Sept. 11. They suffer and die from mental disorders and a variety of conditions caused by rescuing people from clouds of toxins and piles of dangerous rubble.
“Your indifference cost these men and women their most valuable commodity: time. It’s the one thing they’re running out of,” Stewart said.
He spoke of their breathing problems and the political establishment’s refusal to believe them at first.
“And then, as the illnesses got worse, and things became more apparent, ‘Well, OK, you’re sick, but it’s not from the pile.’ And then when the science became irrefutable, ‘OK, it’s the pile, but this is a New York issue. I don’t know if we have the money.’ And I’m sorry if I sound angry and undiplomatic. But I’m angry, and you should be too, and they’re all angry as well and they have every justification to be that way,” Stewart said.
“There is not a person here, there is not an empty chair on that stage that didn’t tweet out ‘Never Forget the heroes of 9/11. Never forget their bravery. Never forget what they did, what they gave to this country.’ Well, here they are...”
He excoriated members who missed the hearing, calling them an “embarrassment.” They should be “ashamed,” Stewart said. He criticized Congress for failing to better support the Victim Compensation Fund. The fund has shorted about 800 claims. It will run out of money soon if Congress does not pass the Never Forget the Heroes Act.
When Stewart spoke about decency and justice, everyone listened. Not just Congress, but much of the country. His speech went viral on major social media platforms.
The victims’ fund is not a partisan concern. We treasured our first responders in 2001, and we should treasure them for the rest of their lives.
Wednesday, the day after Stewart’s admonition, the full Judiciary Committee quickly voted to move the bill to the full House. The measure proposes funding through 2090.
Jon Stewart spoke truth to power. He reminded the country we can agree without concern for party affiliation or political ideology. In doing so, Stewart changed our world for the better with one powerful tirade the country needed to hear.
The Gazette Editorial Board