Jimmy Kimmel’s Rise as a Reluctant Health-Care Crusader

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A public quarrel with a Republican sponsor of the Senate’s Graham-Cassidy bill has put Jimmy Kimmel at the center of a national debate over health-care legislation.

Photograph by Randy Holmes / ABC via Getty

Back during the George W. Bush Administration, when Jon Stewart’s “Daily
Show” was being heralded, and in some corners derided, as the place
where “young people got their news,” Stewart himself would always
bristle. If that were true, he’d joke, then the country was really screwed. Behind the joke was a deeper point, in which Stewart recognized
his own significance. The responsibility of informing the public
shouldn’t have fallen to comedians, but, if it had, it was surely more
an indictment of the traditional news media than it was evidence of
superficial young people or self-important comedians. Stewart, through
his criticism of “Crossfire,” Fox News, and opinion-based cable news,
finally demolished the pretense that cable-news talking heads had any
more claim to authoritativeness than late-night talk-show hosts. Stewart
and Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala and Bill O’Reilly were all in the
same business; it was only Stewart who was honest enough to call out
infotainment for what it was. He took on the role of the reluctant
political warrior; he’d rather have been making dick jokes, but someone
had to try to tell the truth.

We might debate just how sincere Stewart’s reluctance was, but there is
no arguing the power of this stance as rhetoric. We’ve seen that power
again in the past few months, as the late-night host Jimmy Kimmel,
formerly considered a genial lightweight, has emerged as a central voice
in the national debate about health-care legislation. In May, speaking
through tears, Kimmel told
the story of his newborn son, whose congenital heart ailment would require multiple surgeries. His family’s experience
had awakened Kimmel to the essential value of universal health insurance that
didn’t impose lifetime caps or discriminate against patients with
preëxisting conditions—it had made him an advocate for preserving
Obamacare. That monologue thrust Kimmel into the middle of this summer’s
health-care maneuverings; Senator Bill Cassidy, of Louisiana, began
telling reporters that any health-care measure he supported would have
to pass the “Jimmy Kimmel test,” banning caps and protecting patients
with preëxisting conditions, and went on Kimmel’s show to issue a
pledge to the host
himself.

This week, Kimmel was once again at the front of the health-care debate
when, on Tuesday, he lambasted
Cassidy for putting his
name on the newly proposed Graham-Cassidy health-care bill, a
(seemingly) last-ditch effort in the Senate to overturn the Affordable Care Act.
Kimmel said that the new bill broke the promises Cassidy had made to
him, and called the senator a liar. During the monologue, Kimmel, like
Stewart did for years, played down his own credentials in a way that
only bolstered the power of his message: “Health care is complicated.
It’s boring. I don’t want to talk about it. The details are confusing.
And that’s what these guys are relying on. They’re counting on you to be
so overwhelmed with all the information, you just trust them to take
care of you.”

Hosts like Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, and Seth Meyers
are unabashedly political; in a post-Stewart world, they long ago
dropped the idea that there was anything odd about a comedian lecturing
the nation. But, by telling a deeply moving personal story about his
son, Kimmel, whose comedic pedigree includes apolitical things like
sports-talk radio and “The Man Show,” can credibly claim the mantle of a
reasonable man moved by circumstance and conscience to speak up. And if
eight Republican supporters of the Graham-Cassidy bill can’t tell
reporters what it
does,
how are they any more qualified to discuss it than a talk-show host who
has spent the last few months paying close attention to health-care
policy? It’s not Kimmel’s fault that he is one of the few informed,
honest, and authentic voices raising the issue on our televisions. Or
that, thanks to a little studying up, he knows more about a bill than
do the senators who are voting on it, or a President who tweets in support of
it.

The next night, after Cassidy and other politicians had spent the day
dismissing Kimmel as a political novice who didn’t understand what he
was talking about, Kimmel turned up the fire in a scathing ten-minute
monologue, in which he not only demonstrated his facility with the facts but also
roasted the politicians, including Lindsey Graham and Chris Christie,
who had belittled him, and the cable commentators, namely Brian
Kilmeade, who had characterized him as an overreaching member of the
“Hollywood élite.” Channelling Stewart, the original Fox News agitator,
Kimmel called Kilmeade a “phony little creep.” And then he pulled back
the Hollywood curtain to reveal the hypocrisy of Kilmeade’s criticism.
Kilmeade was “such a fan”; he’d asked Kimmel for a blurb on his book; he
bugged Kimmel’s agent looking for new projects. “He kisses my ass like a
little boy meeting Batman,” Kimmel said, in one of the rare instances in
which Internet headlines about a comedian “slaying,” “destroying,” or
“obliterating” someone actually seemed fitting.

If Stewart revealed that there was no difference between comedy and
cable news, then Kimmel has shown—if the election of Donald Trump were
not already proof—that there is little to separate entertainers from
politicians. Kimmel, Kilmeade, and Cassidy were all playing the same
game—just, it turned out, at different levels. It was Cassidy who
invented the “Jimmy Kimmel test,” and who, riding a viral high from it,
went on Kimmel’s show to raise his national profile. He was drafting off of Kimmel’s heartfelt story—of a rich, goofy guy who gained sudden
insight into the challenges of his fellow-Americans when his own baby
son needed heart surgery—to make himself seem generous and kind. “Jimmy
Kimmel Live” was a reasonable place to talk about health-care policy
when it suited Cassidy. It was only when he released his own bill, which
plainly violated the promises he had made to Kimmel’s
audience,
that a late-night talk show suddenly became a frivolous venue for civic
discourse. Cassidy had tried to swim in the big pool of Hollywood, but
showed himself to be a tiny fish. And then he was eaten by a shark.

Sourse: newyorker.com

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