“If you’re for Social Security and Medicare, we’re all socialists,” Jon Stewart told Bill O’Reilly. “Fifty percent of the people know nothing,” O’Reilly told Stewart, adding as examples, “the Jersey Shore people, the Colbert watchers… ” If you find those statements either enlightening or funny, you would have enjoyed “The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium” that took place on Saturday night.
The debate, moderated by news anchor E.D. Hill, was held at George Washington University and streamed on the internet for $4.95, although to judge from my own experience*, many EW.com commenters, tweets seen ’round the world, and apologies from the organizers, a lotta people missed a chunk of the beginning of this event due to technical difficulties. Had Stewart been aware of this, I doubt he would have made the smug comment, “Bill O’Reilly’s audience is calling my audience to ask how to download this.”
The two men, by now buddies who can barely muster the conviction to be genuinely appalled by either’s arguments, initially stood behind podiums, with the five-foot-seven Stewart’s equipped with a riser mechanism that lifted him higher than the six-foot-four O’Reilly. Yes, there were visual gags. O’Reilly came with “funny” signs that he held up occasionally, such as “Bush Is Gone” and “Why Is NPR Getting Our Money?”
They traded barbs over the economy, foreign policy, and social responsibility. Sometimes Stewart was very serious (“It’s atrocious what we’ve done to our veterans,” he said, referring to a lack of government aid for currently returning veterans and of stalled veteran relief aid bills in Congress). Many times O’Reilly tried to be funny. When Stewart said, “We are only as strong as the weakest amongst us,” O’Reilly snapped, “Only as good as CNN?” On a certain level, both men could be proud that they’d each chosen the correct profession: O’Reilly isn’t a good stand-up comic, and Stewart isn’t a good politician.
Stewart and O’Reilly debated in a bubble of mutual self-regard; neither came off particularly well, mostly because both frequently strained for seriousness and comedy within the space of any single question. The subjects and targets were “talking points” and punchlines that each man deals with far better each week night on The O’Reilly Factor and The Daily Show.
Stewart’s best moment: After O’Reilly railed against Obama making it “easy” to get food stamps, Stewart had the response ready: “Why is it that if you take advantage of a corporate tax break you’re a smart businessman, but if you take advantage of getting something so that you don’t go hungry, you’re a moocher?”
Asked whether there’s such a thing as “media bias,” Stewart said he didn’t think ABC, NBC, and CBS are “activist organizations,” but that Fox News is “the lupus of news.” O’Reilly shrugged it off by citing his network’s success: “FNC making a billion dollars a year, so something’s going right.” “Yeah,” said Stewart, looking out at the audience, “you can’t make money selling crap in America.” Big cheers. Easy cheers. Which reminds me, they switched to sitting in easy chairs during the final segment, during which questions were taken from the audience and on-line submissions. Questions like, “If America was on fire, who would you save?”
Yes, it was that kind of night. For the record, O’Reilly said he’d save Oprah Winfrey, and Stewart said he’d save his family.
These guys are much better in their natural habitats.
*Update: To clarify, I caught up with the start of the debate by watching the replay on therumble2012.com