WASHINGTON -- There were all the trappings of a high-octane presidential debate: the over-the-top declarations, the pre-practiced zingers and the schmaltzy appeals to America's truest values. But the presidential candidates were nowhere to be found.
In their place Saturday were two celebrity gabbers who have claimed their stakes to the polar opposite ends of the political spectrum: Bill O'Reilly and Jon Stewart. The political odd-couple came to Washington ready to tangle in an event mockingly dubbed "The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium."
Choice words not suitable for the faint of heart dotted the 90-minute exchange between the Fox News anchor and the star of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," who bantered aggressively but good-naturedly over birth control, President George W. Bush and the so-called "War on Christmas."
Stewart came prepped with a mechanical pedestal he used to elevate himself in the air, making the height-challenged comedian appear taller than the lanky O'Reilly when he wanted to drive a point home.
"I like you much better that way," O'Reilly quipped at one point as he gazed up at his ideological foe.
The political feud between the two caffeinated TV personalities dates back more than a decade. Much like family members who just can't resist pushing each other's buttons over Thanksgiving stuffing, Stewart and O'Reilly love to disagree, but appear to hold nothing against each other once the latest spat has run its course. The two have appeared on each other's programs since 2001, but the face-off Saturday at The George Washington University marked their first head-to-head debate.
Appearing wholly presidential in dark jackets and face makeup under a sign reading "Yum, this banner tastes like freedom," the two quickly turned to talk of government spending and the 47 percent of Americans that Republican Mitt Romney said in a video are dependent on government.
Stewart, defending government involvement in health care and social programs, said the U.S. has always been an entitlement nation.
"We are a people that went to another country, saw other people on it and said, `Yea, we want that," Stewart said. "Have you ever seen `Oprah's favorite things' episode?"
Asked who he'd like to see as president, O'Reilly dead-panned: "I'd have to say Clint Eastwood."
"Well why don't we ask him," said Stewart, mocking the Hollywood actor's widely panned speech in August at the Republican National Convention by getting out of his chair and staring at it while the crowd erupted in laughter.
In an apparent show of bipartisanship, Stewart even got on O'Reilly lap at one point. "And what would you like for Christmas, little boy?" O'Reilly said slyly.
"The display that you saw tonight is why America is America. Robust, creative, no holds barred," O'Reilly told reporters after the debate. "You can call it whatever you want, but you wouldn't see this in a lot of other countries. That's for sure."
Organizers said about 1,500 people attended the event, but the main audience was intended to be online, where the event was live-streamed for $4.95. On Twitter, viewers complained they missed the event when the video servers crashed. Organizers said video will be available for download and that those who experienced errors will be eligible for a refund.
Below, HuffPost's liveblog of the event:
|@ therumble2012 : O'Reilly's in the auditorium. Asked if the air-conditiong be turned down? http://t.co/z7PuvADp http://t.co/h7jTLVsJ|
The moderator: ED Hill, formerly of CNN and Fox News.
Hill says the rules are sort of like the ones Jim Lehrer had: 5 12-minute segments with free-flowing conversation, and audience reprimanded and told to be quiet.
And they're here! The first question to O'Reilly: will people make their choice based on the economy?
"I don't care," he says. OK...
O'Reilly says the election's about the "slackers" who are leeching off the rest of us.
"Debt is bad," he elaborates.
O'Reilly holds up a big "Bush Is Gone" sign to tell people that it's all Obama's fault these days. Then he brings up Sandra Fluke.
"I left two tickets for Sandra, plus a month's supply of birth control pills," he says.
"My friend Bill O'Reilly is completely full of shit," Stewart says. "A good portion of this country has created an alternate universe in which the issues we face revolve around a woman from Georgetown."
Stewart brings up his famed "Bullshit Mountain" riff. "I have come here tonight to plead to the mayor of Bullshit Mountain — talk to your people," he says.
O'Reilly's next sign: 'WHY IS NPR GETTING OUR MONEY?' He says Stewart is dodging "every important issue," like "income redistribution."
Then they argue about whether Social Security is income redistribution.
"Income redistribution = Robin Hood on steroids," O'Reilly's next sign reads. What's with all the signs?
Obama, O'Reilly says, wants to "take the money" from the 1 percent and "give it to Bill Moyers." "I don't want to do it," he says.
"I don't know that I have time to unpack this, but the reasons that we invest in things like public television is that it brings educational programs to people who might not have them." Stewart says.
"Give me my money back, the 0 billion for the Iraq war, and children's television is on the house," Stewart says.
" trillion debt and we gotta pay for Bill Moyers?" O'Reilly says.
Stewart then talks over ED Hill, just like she was Jim Lehrer. Zing!
Next question: what's to blame for the bad economy?
O'Reilly: it's government intervention that's creating a lack of confidence.
"You gotta let the free market run away a little bit," O'Reilly says. "You gotta unleash the machine."
"Oh, because what could go wrong?" Stewart says.
Now there's an argument over the debt. O'Reilly's saying it's too out of control under Obama, and Stewart's saying that it's holding steadier than it was under Bush.
"What [Bush] created was a society of entitlement that we could have two wars that cost 0 billion and cut taxes at the same time," Stewart says.
O'Reilly says that under Bush, tax revenues were higher because "everyone was working," and that now "class warfare" is making things worse.
ED Hill: "Let's move on." O'Reilly: "Are you still here?"
Up now: entitlements! Does Stewart think that the expansion of entitlements is necessarry
Stewart says the country's founding — coming to a country with other people and taking it — makes it an "entitlement nation."
He says that elites shouldn't be able to crash the economy and then complain when the poor need help.
"Nobody begrudges people who need it a safety net," O'Reilly says, but he says that the "mindset" now is too much entitlement.
"When you need something, it's an entitlement," Stewart says. "When they need something, it is what it is."
"Who's 'they?'" O'Reilly says. Stewart says that O'Reilly's hometown of Levittown is an example of successful government intervention (O'Reilly disagrees.) "You grew up in subsidized housing," he says.
Stewart then notes that O'Reilly's own father filed for disability with his company. O'Reilly says that it was through the private sector, not from the government.
"Nobody begrudges people who are ill on the job," O'Reilly says. "You just did! You're begrudging!" Stewart says.
O'Reilly returns to Sandra Fluke, saying it's "insane" to pay for her birth control.
"We have already decided" on a social safety net, Stewart says. O'Reilly says Obama made it too easy for people to get disability benefits and food stamps.
"Why is it that if you take advantage of a corporate tax break you're a smart businessman, but if you take advantage of something so you don't go hungry, you're a moocher?" Stewart says.
Next topic: the president's policy in the Middle East.
O'Reilly's next sign: Drones Yes, Waterboards No. He notes the irony of hating waterboarding and being cool with dropping a missile in the middle of a city.
Stewart says it's interesting that people who were crowing over "spreading democracy" during the Bush years have turned into realpolitik practitioners in the Obama years.
O'Reilly says that Obama's sending a weak signal to the world. Stewart scoffs at this.
O'Reilly's next sign: "Iran not frightened."
"Did they attack our embassy because Barack Obama is weak?" Stewart says. O'Reilly says yes, basically.
"So the guy with the drone army ... is the one who's soft on terror?" Stewart says. "There's a difference between terror and coddling" bad governments, O'Reilly says.
Stewart says that American consulates were attacked nine times under Bush.
"Bill be quiet!" Hill says while ringing the bell, trying to control them. Everyone ignores her.
Hill asks about the attacks in Benghazi.
"I think this whole situation in Libya has been mishandled," Stewart says.
O'Reilly says "buying friends" in the Middle East is sometimes necessary, which, as Stewart notes, contrasts somewhat with his attacks on Egypt's government.
O'Reilly says that he doesn't care if "Gerry and the Pacemakers" attacked the embassy, because the Egyptian government could have stopped it.
"This is on the Internet, Bill," Stewart says. "That's not the reference you want to make."
"It doesn't matter whether Lil' Wayne attacked," O'Reilly says, correcting himself. Then he yells, "Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary Pirates!"
Does it exist? "I don't think ABC or NBC or CBS are activist organizations," Stewart says. He then calls Fox News "the lupus of news," an autoimmune virus that's "gone overboard."
"FNC making a billion dollars a year, so something's going right," O'Reilly says.
"Yes, you can't make money selling crap in America," Stewart says.
O'Reilly says there's a liberal tilt in terms of hiring and story selection, and Fox News is successful because it gives voice to people ignored by the rest of the media.
Stewart says if there's an organization where more people believe that Obama's a Muslim than believe in evolution, there's a problem.
What should the government have to give us in the Constitution?
Stewart says the Constitution, which calls for promoting a "more perfect union" and "general welfare," speaks for itself.
"Unions and welfare," he says. "Blame the founders."
"This man has offended every single American by saying we're only as good as our weakest link," O'Reilly said. "We're only as weak as CNN?"
The soda tax! Stewart says adults should be able to buy whatever they want, but that the country also needs universal health insurance.
Is there a War on Christmas? Stewart looks down.
"Let me handle this," he says. "I think people have confused not being able to pray everywhere with not being able to pray anywhere."
People who think Christmas is under attack should "walk a mile in Hanukkah's shoes," he adds.
"We won the war on Christmas," O'Reilly says. He says the ACLU filed lawsuits against small towns, but the war was won when Obama dropped a drone on the ACLU headquarters. A joke, we guess?