The OTHER presidential debate: Jon Stewart vs Bill O'Reilly

The "Rumble In The Air-Conditioned Auditorium" shows how staid the real thing is, says Nicky Woolf. Also, that Jon Stewart should be helping Obama with debate-prep.

At five minutes to eight last night, Eastern time, the internet imploded. Or at least, that corner of the internet that was attempting to access the live-stream for the promised “Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium” between Fox News' patriarch Bill O'Reilly and the Daily Show's Jon Stewart. Under the pressure of “hundreds of thousands” of last-minute users trying to access the live feed (which cost $4.95, with some proceeds for charity), Nox Solutions, which was operating the stream, came under heavy fire from dissatisfied social media users. “Screw you NOX SOLUTIONS”, said one on the event's Facebook page. “This is ridiculous this is PATHETIC – off to Reddit to fix, mock and hopefully find a solution,” said another.

The Wall Street Journal's live-blog of the event was caught in the blackout. The entry for 8:24 reads: “I apologize for this live blog not being able to cover this event so far. We have already contacted the organizers to ask what's going on with their site, which appears to have crashed for lots of other users. Nobody has returned our message yet.”

I managed to find a feed eventually, through a slightly shady web-TV outfit based, as far as I could tell, out of the Ukraine, with a shaky video feed but a solid audio, which was better than a lot of people were doing. The showdown, when I finally got in to it, was a hell of a lot more fun than last Wednesday's presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Bill O'Reilly is probably the most influential media figure on the right. His Fox News show has been top of the ratings for more than ten years now, while more bombastic anchors like Glenn Beck have come and gone. Meanwhile Stewart, despite vehemently denying his show's political influence – “I'm just a comedian,” he likes to say in interviews, slightly disingenuously – is nonetheless without a doubt the most influential media figure on the left, with viewing figures similar to that of O'Reilly, and the Daily Show acts as a stalwart check on the excesses of Fox News. Both command audiences of between two and three million.

Stewart and O'Reilly have already crossed swords on the other's shows several times, and these are always enjoyable conflicts. While there were a lot of lines played just for laughs – Stewart said the Fox News building had the Eye of Sauron on its roof, and raised himself up and down at various intervals on a platform lift behind his podium as part of a running joke about their height difference (Stewart is 5'7”, O'Reilly 6'4”, leading the former to call the latter a “yeti”). O'Reilly came with bizarre placards – one with the words “Iran: not frightened” as well as a cartoon picture of a bomb.

But despite this levity, much of the evening had a serious tone. The biggest applause of the evening came from a line of Stewart's. “Why is it that if you take advantage of a tax break, you’re a smart businessman, but if you take advantage of something you need to not go hungry, you’re a moocher?” he demanded. When O'Reilly said that government was good at running things like the military only because it had a “tradition” of doing so, Stewart, leaning back and unsmiling, called it “the silliest thing you've said all evening.”

Stewart scored a crushing blow when the moderator asked who each of them would save, rather surreally, if “America was burning.” “Oprah,” answered O'Reilly. “She's worth a hundred million.” Stewart raised an eyebrow, and said cuttingly: “well, I'd save my family. But listen, Oprah's a great answer too.”

The Daily Show presenter was especially good at courting the online as well as the present audience. “Somebody better be live-tweeting this,” he said at one point. “I don't care if Gerry and the Pacemakers attacked the embassy,” said O'Reilly a bit later, and in answer Stewart waved expansively at the cameras. “This is on the internet, Bill,” he said. “I don't think that's really the reference you want to be making.” “Alright then,” answered O'Reilly dryly but uncertainly. “I don't care if... um, Little Wayne attacked the embassy.”

The most interesting thing really, of course, was what last night said about the debates it emulated: it highlighted the insipid, starchy care with which a Presidential candidate must conduct himself. Last night sparkled with all the ridiculousness and fire that was lacking last Wednesday, because the media pressure on a candidate not to make anything which can be interpreted as a gaffe. Romney's perceived win on Wednesday was because he looked most like Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly did last night: like he was enjoying himself. Facts (arguably) be damned.

Obama looked professorial and staid by comparison, and in an age where the best lines are far more important than the best policies this was fatal. It is Jon Stewart who the President should be running debate-prep with, not John Kerry.

Yeah, this happened. Photo: Getty

Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly at their presidential debate. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle