The canniest conservative on cable TV news and the sharpest social progressive in late-night comedy finally had it out on a debate stage Saturday, and the biggest tragedy is that more people didn't get to see it.
That's because the primary way anyone outside Washington could see Daily Show host Jon Stewart and O'Reilly Factor host Bill O'Reilly's "Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium" debate was an online live stream that loads of fans could not access when it started at 8 p.m. Saturday.
Judging by the complaints on Twitter and Facebook, many who paid $4.95 to see the event received only error messages when clicking on the special URL provided. Celebrities from Scrubs star Zach Braff to Pulitzer-winning movie critic Roger Ebert complained about the mess, which forced moderators of a live blog organized by the Wall Street Journal to apologize for the lack of content.
Fortunately, the mess seemed to clear up about 45 minutes in, and those who forked out for access could also watch or download an archived version.
What those lucky enough to get access saw was a spirited give-and-take between conservative and progressive positions highlighted by a lot of jokes, a fair bit of passion and a surprising amount of solid facts. Kinda like what some of us wish would have happened last Wednesday in Denver.
So here's a quick look at some of the highlights.
Even though moderator — and former VH1 VJ/ex-Fox News anchor — E.D. Hill said the first hour of the debate would start with questions, O'Reilly and Stewart shrugged off Hill to present opening statements that served as manifestos for the evening.
O'Reilly: "About 20 percent of us are slackers, and it's a growing industry. That is what this election is all about. … We are spending an enormous amount of money on 20 percent (of people) who, for whatever reason, (say) 'Ah, we're just not gonna cut it.' "
Stewart: "My friend Bill O'Reilly is completely full of s---. A good portion of this country has created an alternative universe. … I call this place where these folks live B---s--- Mountain. (turning to O'Reilly) I have come here to plead with the mayor of B---s--- Mountain. Please talk to your people."
O'Reilly drew laughs by flashing a procession of large cards bearing simple slogans: "Bush is gone," "Debt is bad," "Drones yes! Waterboards no!" and "Iran not frightened," with a picture of an atomic bomb helpfully added. His thesis: That a perception of Barack Obama as a weak president has led Americans to overuse entitlement programs and Middle Eastern terrorists to attack us.
Stewart, who stands 5 feet 7 next to a 6-4 O'Reilly, used a lift hidden under the podium where he stood to elevate himself at key points of the debate — as when he asserted his esteemed rival was "completely full of s---" by refusing to consider the impact of Bush administration policies or history.
Stewart often surprised viewers with a deep knowledge of facts, including maintaining that O'Reilly's hometown of Levittown, Long Island, N.Y., was built up by soldiers who got low-interest mortgages, small-business loans and college funds through the G.I. Bill, which was — technically — government-subsidized education, business and housing. (Historians such as Stephen Ambrose have said many of America's early suburbs were built up that way.) He also noted that O'Reilly's father left his job after becoming ill, using workers' compensation to keep up their income.
O'Reilly: "My father's salary, a portion of it, went into that fund in case he needed that disability. (Stewart) doesn't know the difference between the private and the public sector."
Stewart: ''Your suggestion is, Barack Obama came into office and all of sudden everybody went 'Lord have mercy. We don't need to work anymore.' "
O'Reilly: "They advertised on the radio for food stamps!"
Stewart: "Why is it that, if you take advantage of a tax break, you're a smart businessman, but if you take advantage of something that you need to not be hungry, you're moocher?"
Forget about Jim Lehrer. Hill, who kept trying to interject questions as Stewart and O'Reilly dug into a real debate, erred by stepping in when discussion was great and asking lame questions when it wasn't. (She is the former Fox News anchor best known for asking if a fist bump between the Obamas was a "terrorist fist jab" in a 2008 news promo.) Small wonder Stewart just started asking O'Reilly sharper, more interesting questions on his own.
O'Reilly: "(Stewart) has offended every single American by saying we are only as good as our weakest link. We're only as good as CNN? Are you kidding me?"
Stewart: "Fox News is an overreaction … sort of like the lupus of news … they have seen something (like liberal bias), it is there with a soupcon, and Fox News has gone overboard. I think anytime you run an organization where more (viewers) believe the president is a Muslim than believe in evolution, there's a problem."
The verdict: Everybody wins
O'Reilly and Stewart attacked each other's arguments but not their personalities, armed with facts and a fair bit of passion. They didn't replace traditional news sources or change many minds, but they did offer a blueprint for debate that can inform, entertain and push forward the bounds of public discussion at once.
Wonder if anybody in the political world was actually paying attention?