Wits, not fists, to fly at po­lit­i­cal ‘rum­ble’

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Michael O’sul­li­van

WASH­ING­TON — 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 sold-out show will be avail­able over the In­ter­net through live stream­ing. 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 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, Stew- art 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 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. OK, 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 fu­elled 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.”

PETER KRAMER / THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Jon Ste­wart, left, and Bill O’Reilly will face off for a spe­cial 90-minute de­bate.

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