Toward the middle of Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart’s “Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium” on Saturday, O’Reilly dropped a surprising truth bomb on an already heavily truthed-out audience. Referring to the presidential debates, he said, “I would just rather have them like Stewart and me, up here.” Well I wasn’t sure I’d ever say this, but me too, Billy. Me too.
The debate between two of television’s most charismatic and divisive personalities was enjoyable, educational, honest and passionate from start to finish. There was dumb humor and some swearing, and each combatant was accorded one major gag (Reilly his noxious flashcards, Stewart his goofy hydraulic lift) to milk for all it was worth. But production values aside, I learned more about the opposing viewpoints in this country through one and a half hours of talking heads sparring than I will most likely glean from all three presidential debates. As a friend of mine put it in our post-show discussion, “They just did such a better job representing the viewpoints of their respective parties than either candidate ever will.”
It’s disheartening to think that Jon Stewart’s eloquent challenge to conservatives that “they can no longer privatize their profits and socialize their losses,” and Bill O’Reilly’s calm, open assertion that the Iraq war was a mistake, could never be replicated by their respective presidential hopefuls. (Though yes Bill, I know, you claim you aren’t a Republican. Sure.) It’s disheartening to think that public dialogue between differing ideologies can only achieve a certain measure of empathy and tolerance when the stakes are somewhere close to nonexistent.
Still, the influence of both these men is undeniable. And the fact that they were willing to come together, shake hands, admit what it was about the other they found admirable, debate wholeheartedly their opposing views, and call in turn for a similar frankness from government, well, that actually felt like an important step forward in our polarized national conversation. This no-pressure bout between a comedian and a polemico felt like a move toward something true, an expression of the willingness to duke it out honestly and generously that has been missing from our political discourse for a long, long time.