The funny thing about last night's confrontation between Jim Cramer and Jon Stewart is that it didn't really have to happen in the first place. If you recall, at the time the Daily Show first handed CNBC its own ass on the air, the business network was already in retreat, having pulled Rick Santelli from making a planned appearance on the grounds that the network wanted to move on to the next story. Chances are, they correctly surmised that Santelli was gonna get done in at the hands of Stewart, and wanted to minimize the damage. By the end of last week, Dealbreaker was noting CNBC's lame excuses. It wasn't until this week that Jim Cramer became the focus of the argument and the flashpoint for its escalation.
Cramer was bound and determined, at the outset, to be a good soldier for his network, and to put Stewart, who he described as a "comedian," in his place. And Cramer was full of bluster until the hour drew nigh. That's when he started trying to manage expectations. That's when he started striking a plaintive chord. I was primed to expect to see Cramer come on The Daily Show and plead guilty. The only mystery was whether he would properly allocute to the offenses, and how hard Stewart would make it for Cramer if he went without satisfaction.
The whole matter has been broadly compared to Stewart's famous CROSSFIRE appearance, in which the comedian went into CNN's house and burned their franchise political shoutfest right down to the doorknockers, with an ardent Tucker Carlson fighting him every step of the way. But Cramer wasn't, in this case, the Guy Who Hurt America. Not really. Stewart had already made that case a week prior, in his overall rampage against CNBC.
For my part, I thought that last night's interview was more akin to what Jon Stewart did to Chris Matthews on October 2, 2007. Back then, Matthews was pimping his latest book, Life Is A Campaign, and Stewart conducted a vertigo-inducing confrontation in which Matthews' very philosophy of life was ridiculed. So it was with Cramer. Certainly, Cramer has been wrong on specific facts and has dispensed suspect and contradictory advice. And those videos Stewart showed of Cramer big upping market manipulation certainly cut to the core of whether you can take the man seriously as a stock picker or a market expert. But really, Stewart's ire wasn't directed at matters of fact. It was directed at matters of philosophy: that it all could be turned into "a fucking game."
The eerie similarities between Cramer and Matthews don't end there. Both men, more than anything else, seem rather desperate to be liked. When you read Mark Leibovich's story on Chris Matthews in the April 13, 2008 edition of the New York Times Magazine, Matthews' desire to simply be admired comes aching off the pages with a ruinous intensity. I believe that the dividing line between Cramer the Sober Market Manipulator and Cramer the Happy Jester of Mad Money, is bridged by that same desire. Cramer just wanted to be thought of as a fun guy, an entertainer, a comedian in his own right. And, honestly, that's probably the reason why he unnecessarily leapt full bore into the fray with Jon Stewart. He had impugned CNBC's honor and the credibility of all those colleagues that gave him acceptance and that egged him on.
But the fact that no one bothered to spare Cramer the same presumed indignity that Rick Santelli was spared is telling. And even Stewart attested to the fact that it was simply unfair for Cramer to be bearing the weight of CNBC's sins. The thing is, that's what he'd always done. Cramer's antic disposition has always helped CNBC's own irrational exuberance seem sober by comparison. His propensity for mistakes made everyone else's record look shrewd. Cramer didn't mind because his clown act fulfilled him. And CNBC gave him everything he wanted - that Pee Wee's Playhouse set, those nonsensical sound effects - and together, they sold the dream of a boom time without end.
But the boom time is over, and a scapegoat was needed, and so Cramer was sent off toddling into what every observer on the sideline knew in advance was going to be a trap. And it's sad to think that Cramer had no actual friends among his colleagues - a person who could have told him "Stop. Don't do this to yourself," or at the very least faced the music with him. Non-gutless people were in short supply at CNBC, I guess. But like Cramer said: he tried, he tried. But now the money's gone to heaven, the clown act is over, and everyone who pretended to like him is gone.