Zingers flew and egos crackled Saturday night as Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly and “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart debated in front of a boisterous audience at the George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. The two television personalities, at ideological odds, found common ground by brandishing their wit and revving their symbiotic sideshow act, branded this time around as “The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium.”
In one corner: O’Reilly, 63, a 6-foot-4 conservative Catholic from Levittown, N.Y., who divides the world into patriots and pinheads every weeknight on “The O’Reilly Factor.”
In the other: Stewart, 49, a 5-foot-6 liberal Jew from New Jersey whose quippy ombudsmanship of O’Reilly’s network has dominated segments on his rollicking Comedy Central show for years.
“How many people think it’s Bush’s fault?” O’Reilly said in his opening statement, referring to the country’s myriad problems. “Bush. Is. Gone,” he replied as people applauded their assent.
“My friend Bill O’Reilly is completely full of s---,” Stewart said in his opening statement.
The debate cantered playfully from there for 90 minutes.
Stewart: “I believe in Social Security. Do you?”
Stewart: “Then we’re both socialists.”
The pair steamrolled moderator and CNN contributor E.D. Hill, who knew better than to get in the way of either showman. The men — both dressed in charcoal suit jackets and both with books to sell and profiles to maintain — stood at rostrums underneath a digital rendering of a bald eagle clutching a banner that said “Yum, this banner tastes like freedom.” Stewart occasionally employed an electric platform that raised him to O’Reilly’s height.
Sparring topics included the national debt (the pair got bogged down sorting out the difference between the debt and the deficit), the war on Christmas (“We won,” O’Reilly said, to Stewart’s bafflement), health care (O’Reilly wants private insurance companies to run the show; Stewart wants to decouple insurance and employment) and Middle East policy.
“He’s done a good job on terrorism,” O’Reilly said of Obama, but both he and Stewart agreed that the president mishandled the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
“Give me back the $800 billion for the Iraq war . . . and it’s rubbers for everyone on me,” Stewart said when discussing economic redistribution.
Stewart routinely redirected the conversation back to his view that President Obama is being judged by a different standard than his predecessors and that the country is distracted by warped conversations about capitalism versus socialism and democracy versus tyranny. O’Reilly routinely dismissed Stewart’s earnest theses with a scoff or a one-liner.
“‘I’m entitled to my birth control paid for by the taxpayer?’ That’s insane,” O’Reilly said to enthusiastic applause.
Stewart: “We have already decided as a society to take care of people who need help. . . . You’re suggesting Barack Obama came into office and everyone said, ‘Lordy, I don’t have to work anymore!’ ”
O’Reilly: “He made it a lot easier. There are ads on the radio for food stamps.”
Stewart: “Why is it if you take advantage of a tax break and you’re a corporation, you’re a smart businessman, but if you take advantage of something you need to not be hungry, you’re a moocher?”
Lisner tickets ranged from $25 to $100 and the event was live-streamed online for $4.95, although there were widespread reports of technical issues that marred the remote viewing experience. Half the net profits will go to a bevy of charities, including the Wounded Warrior Project, Doctors Without Borders, the USO and the NYC Coalition for the Homeless.
A spokesman for the company that organized the event later released a statement apologizing for the technical problems, saying that the show would be available on-demand and via download, and that refunds would be available.