As you may have heard, pundit Bill O’Reilly and comedian Jon Stewart will square off Saturday night at Lisner Auditorium in a mock political debate. Billed as “The Rumble 2012” in an evocation of a prize fight, the show will be available over the Internet through live streaming, as tickets for the piece of theatrical infotainment sold out almost immediately. When the two men step behind their podiums, the biggest question may not be who will knock out whom, but whether these two combatants will be able to prevent the rhetorical smackdown from becoming more lovefest than tongue-lashing.
On more than one occasion, O’Reilly has spoken surprisingly warmly of his rival, who as the host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” makes regular comic mincemeat out of O’Reilly’s employer, Fox News. “I like Stewart,” O’Reilly has said, with apparent sincerity. “I respect his opinion.”
For his part, Stewart calls O’Reilly “the most reasonable voice on Fox,” even though that voice has been known to rise in apoplectic fury at some of his liberal guests on “The O’Reilly Factor.” (The comedian did qualify that praise, comparing O’Reilly’s achievement to “being the thinnest kid at fat camp.”)
Over the years, the men have made good-natured appearances on each other’s programs. On Sept. 18, Stewart turned up on “The O’Reilly Factor” to explain his reasons for agreeing to the debate, which arguably puts him in enemy territory, given that it will be moderated by former “Fox News Live” host — and former O’Reilly radio co-host — E.D. Hill. As you may remember, Hill infamously referred to a congratulatory greeting between Barack and Michelle Obama after the 2008 primaries as a “terrorist fist jab.”
“I sense there is still good in you,” Stewart told O’Reilly, in an allusion to Luke Skywalker’s decidedly complicated relationship with his father, Darth Vader.
Not that O’Reilly and Stewart share political DNA. But they’re also less polarized than you might think. The Fox News host has gone on record as supporting environmental regulation, gun control, civil unions and gay adoption. He opposes the death penalty.
Strangest of all, perhaps? O’Reilly, a registered independent, professes not to have a knee-jerk hatred of all things Democratic, unlike some of the more inflammatory talking heads whom he has referred to as “assassins.” To the contrary, it is entirely plausible that O’Reilly “loooves” President Obama, as conservative commentator Ann Coulter sarcastically dismissed her sometime ideological ally in a recent interview.
Okay, love may be a strong word.
In any event, the Rumble — an hour of debate followed by 30 minutes of audience questions — is being pitched as a conversation fueled less by partisanship than by philosophy. When they met last month, Stewart called the event “an old-fashioned duel of wits.” O’Reilly has described it as a forum to illuminate “vital issues” of the day, including the economy and the national debt; terrorism and American relations in Muslim countries; and gas prices and energy policy.
Hoo boy, that’s comedy gold right there.
Should you worry that the Rumble won’t live up to the hype? Most real political debates are exercises in repetition, evasion and platitudes. But look who’s talking here, and more important, how they talk. Stewart and O’Reilly have never been shy about campaigning — for ratings. Ironically, publicists for the event were loath to confirm even simple details about the debate format, beyond what both men have said publicly. It makes candidates’ reluctance to offer specifics seem like an exercise in oversharing.
One thing is almost certain. As Stewart succinctly — and, with any luck, presciently — put it in the Rumble’s press release: “I believe this will be a very enjoyable night for fans of our programs, political junkies, partisans and people who just enjoy yelling.”