Saturday’s blockbuster debate between Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart at George Washington University was billed as "The Rumble In the Air-Conditioned Auditorium," while its pay-per-view livestream was advertised with the tagline "Why Al Gore invented the internet." Oops. This meeting of ideological combatants went beyond merely addressing the problems that face our nation – it embodied them. Like America itself, it worked pretty well for some, and terribly for others.
Many of those who paid the $4.95 to view the debate couldn’t watch it due to server failure. Almost immediately, someone popped on Twitter with a conspiratorial explanation for the tech fail: "Same company running #Rumble2012 stream runs O'Reilly's site, Dennis Miller's...They've never had 2 worry abt traffic." Stewart even touched on the night’s utterly un-Al Gore-worthy debacle, albeit unintentionally, in a joke about the generation gap between Daily Show fans and viewers of The O’Reilly Factor: "Right now, Bill O’Reilly’s audience is calling my audience and asking how to download this debate."
Other aspects of the evening had an air of the Fox shouter’s home turf. The event’s moderator, CNN's E.D. Hill, was a former Fox anchor who – when she wasn’t being summarily Lehrered by the guys on stage – asked questions that often seemed piped in from Paul Ryan’s brain stem. ("Are we turning into a nation of takers?") The tone and terms of the debate were set by O’Reilly’s utterly unmoored claim early on that 20 percent of the country are "slackers" living off the hard-earned tax dollars of productive citizens like Bill O’Reilly. (If so, that’s a 27-point improvement from May, when Mitt Romney made his infamous 47 percent comment, so the Obama recovery must be really kicking ass.)
Stewart could have shot back with a full-throated defense of Keynesian deficit spending during economic downturns. But like President Obama in last Wednesday’s presidential debate, he seemed fine with conceding the fundamental playing ground to the center-right. Unlike the president, however, Stewart blew his opponent out of the room anyway.
The two debaters stood at podiums in an auditorium, but the rhetorical tone came closer to some ur-Thanksgiving dinner table battle between the addled, bloviating "why should I have to pay for NPR?" uncle and the agile hyper-informed "but that’s like .014 percent of the federal budget!" nephew. O’Reilly has gone soft after years of Hulk-smashing the test-tube clichéd liberals that Fox must grow in its secret underground laboratories. He blames the fall of America on Sandra Fluke wanting her birth control covered; he’d happily grill up Big Bird on a spit to shave a few pennies off his tax bill. In one particularly absurdist running gag, he inexplicably held up signs that said stuff like "Debt Is Bad" and "Bush Is Gone," leaving Stewart Mack truck-sized openings to swat down inanity like the Fluke claim with lines like "Gimme me back the $800 billion we spent on the Iraq war and it’s free rubbers for everyone."
Brilliantly, Stewart at times seemed to frame the debate as a kind of intervention: "A good portion of Americans live in an alternative reality called Bullshit Mountain," he said in his mock-presidential opening statement. "I have come to talk to the Mayor of Bullshit Mountain. Talk to your people." From that point on, it was a roaring hour and half that proved just how hard it is to traverse the chasm between the Reality Based Community and Bullshit Mountain as the debaters ran through a roster of topics ranging from health care to foreign policy to immigration (where O’Reilly did take a surprisingly humane stance) to the necessity of the electoral college to the War on Christmas. ("Try walking a mile in Hanukkah’s shoes," Stewart said.)
It was like two ships passing in the night – or more like a massive Empire Strikes Back AT-AT with a faded Reagan ’84 sticker on its bumper slowly stomping across a tundra of delusion while a rebel snow speeder zips around tying it in knots. Sometimes the two couldn’t even agree on what they were disagreeing about. ("Are we talking about Libya or Egypt?" Stewart asked during a less-than-conclusive segment on the Middle East.)
But even at their most heated, Stewart and O'Reilly were rarely disagreeable. During the question-and-answer period that followed the debate, O’Reilly complimented Stewart for "going to visit the wounded troops," and the array of faces Stewart has invented to express his Job-like yet genial incredulity when O’Reilly really jacks up the crazy is downright staggering. They’ve always made a pretty good comedy team – not quite a Gore Vidal and Williams F. Buckley for our time, but maybe the one we deserve – and definitely worth $4.95. Next time though, maybe put it on YouTube, just to be safe.