Jon Stewart as host of "Meet the Press?" Jon Stewart as the next Tim Russert? Jon Stewart as the guy who would single-handedly revive TV's oldest and (long ago, anyway) TV's most influential Sunday morning talk show?
Really? Not really, but as Gabriel Sherman reported in a fascinating piece on New York magazine's "Daily Intelligencer" Wednesday, that is exactly what top NBC News management wanted, before finally settling on the more logical choice, Chuck Todd.
Here's the key line ... "Before choosing Todd, NBC News president Deborah Turness held negotiations with Jon Stewart about hosting 'Meet the Press,' according to three senior television sources with knowledge of the talks."
Todd has been in the job one month Sunday, and he's doing just fine, as everyone expected. But could this alternate universe scenario have unfolded? Sherman noted an executive saying the "Brink's truck" would have been backed up to get Stewart in the role -- a threadworn metaphor and the usual network expectation that money solves everything.
But what Turness -- possibly because of her British antecedents -- and the others involved in this apparently didn't quite fully understand or grasp: What did Stewart want?
This could be a Failure to Google on their part, or perhaps they let their Nexis account run out, or maybe -- as seems more possible -- they simply do not have the institutional memory to fully understand how this would have played out all along: Stewart is not motivated by Brink's trucks, for one thing.
Here's the history, briefly, as I have understood it over the past 20 years, and I am absolutely certain this is only the tip of the verifiable iceberg because Stewart has fended off many pitches over the years:
1.) CBS was instantly ready to install Stewart as David Letterman's replacement if he went to ABC, during that anxious period in March 2002; that would have ended Ted Koppel's "Nightline." In any event, Letterman never went, of course, and the status quo remained intact. But my understanding then and now is that Stewart wanted no part of the game -- being a pawn moved by a powerful company (CBS and Viacom, owner of Comedy Central, were then one entity).
Moreover, he had no desire to host a network late night talk show -- abandoning the franchise he had established so that he could talk to the latest star of "CSI" about the new movie they were also starring in.
He has been absolutely steadfast about this point. Of course, "Meet the Press" isn't late night TV, so next point.
2.) "60 Minutes" gave serious consideration to asking -- asking, not demanding -- Stewart to host the closing essay, established by Andy Rooney. He wouldn't have replaced Rooney, as I understand it, but eventually, when Andy was ready to move on. (Andy, who died in 2011 was never ready to move on from this gig.) It's unclear whether Stewart seriously considered this, while "60" did try out other hosts. Stewart would have been able -- as I understand it -- to continue his role as "Daily Show" chief. But this all remains a moot point. For some reason, the deal was never sealed, and "60" is doing just fine without a closing essay (a top 10 show last week).
All of this fails to answer: What does Stewart want?
Interesting question, and the best I can tell, the answer is right in front of everybody: What he already has.
The Brink's truck backed up long ago -- there have been many guesses at remuneration, but mine is that it's well north of $15 million per year, possibly closer to $20 million. He is, along with Letterman, the highest paid late-night host on TV. NBC would have needed to back up a fleet of Brink's trucks.
Next, what would he have done at "Meet the Press?" Change it beyond recognition? Without doubt. But as any loyal viewer knows about "Daily," it's not just Stewart -- but a brilliant cast of supporting players (OK -- correspondents, if you must).
It's not just politics, although mostly politics, but books, culture, and a range of other subjects that don't normally play on "MTP."
Jon swears a lot. Bleeping on "MTP?" Strange.
Jon is a scold: Imagine him ripping into a scoundrel from Capitol Hill, and there are so many of them. He couldn't hold his tongue -- you wouldn't expect him to.
In people's fond memory, Russert, too, was considered a hard-hitter, a no-baloney interviewer who would take no one's garbage and recycle it for them.
But Russert, who was certainly a superb interviewer, like the rest of the Capitol TV news crew, barely scratched or clawed at the run-up to the war in Iraq. Stewart, by contrast, was screaming at the camera and whoever he could get to scream at.
Russert was part of the Capitol Hill gang -- read Mark Leibovich's brilliant book, "This Town," to find out how much Russert was part of the ebb and flow of power there.
Stewart, as establishment man, hitting the party circuit, so he could hang with Andrea Mitchell and then turn around to shake hands with Harry Reid?
And what about his nightly excoriation of Fox News? How would that play on "Meet the Press?" Not well, unless Comcast wants to get into a war with Fox -- and both companies are deeply engaged in various business enterprises together.
No, NBC. Sorry. You got this one wrong. Stewart is right where he should be -- doing what he's best at, and doing it masterfully. Sometimes people do get exactly what they want, and they do it. Stewart is one of those people.
By the way, everything has worked out just fine: Todd is doing a masterful job, too.