Regular viewers of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart are accustomed by now to the verbal battles that ensue when Stewart brings conservative guests on his show. The guests usually leave with a bit of egg on their faces, and Stewart comes off as the hard hitting, divisive and sarcastic critic.
But viewers were treated to a rare dose of sincerity and intelligent debate on Monday, when Stewart hosted former legal counsel for the Bush Justice Department John Yoo. Following up on what was a meaningful and intelligent interview Monday night, Stewart apologized to his audience on Tuesday for not being his usual cutthroat self, and daring to discuss issues in a civilized tone.
Yoo and Stewart duked it out for almost 30 minutes (videos below the fold), but the host did not manage to get the better of Yoo, who is now infamous among liberal circles for writing the legal briefs justifying expanded executive powers to combat terrorism under the previous administration.
Stewart ended the segment with a very uncharacteristic--given his tendency to demonize conservatives--call for civility in the public discourse (brief partial transcript after videos):
"I hope that people take away from it at least a certain human struggle that everybody faces in these difficult situations to do what they think is best for the country whether there are disagreements or not and not to demonize those actions on one side or the other because that is way too easy these days. And I don't hate Bush, you, the things that were done; I disagree with certain things, and I appreciate you coming by to discuss them…"
The left, however, was frantic and furious that Stewart just couldn't manage to get the better of Yoo. Wrote Adam Serwer at the American Prospect,
There is an unexpected silence in the liberal blogosphere after last night's highly anticipated Daily Show episode, in which Jon Stewart hosted John Yoo, the author of many of the Bush administration's torture memos and one of the people most responsible for giving legal sanction to the practice of torture. That's probably because Stewart found himself completely outmatched by a charming, tactful Yoo who seemed far better prepared to defend granting virtually unlimited powers to the executive branch than ever before. Put simply, Stewart failed to make Yoo look like he had done anything wrong. In fact, he made him look entirely reasonable. Stewart fares slightly better in the extended interview, but on the whole he was visibly out of his weight class...
Stewart allowed Yoo to maintain the illusion that he was a good faith actor simply doing his job, rather than someone who had deliberately distorted the facts in order to justify the unjustifiable. After being outmaneuvered for nearly 30 minutes, Stewart grudgingly admitted that he was "not very equipped to handle the discussion." It was a sobering reminder that for years, a mostly pliant press has allowed a comedian to do a reporters' job. Yesterday, we were reminded how inadequate a solution that really is.
Whereas the night before, when Stewart had been unable to best Yoo, he had touted the importance of civilized debate and a refrain from demonization, on Tuesday he seemed to regret not having demonized Yoo while he had the chance.
"Last night we had John Yoo on. He's credited with writing the memos that allowed the Bush Administration to, I guess, hold people underwater for long periods of time. And he was on the show and I was going to nail him baby! [strange noises] He slipped right through my fingers! [strange noises] it was like interviewing sand… He got me, and uh, I'll bounce back, I've certainly done worse."
It was refreshing to see some honest, meaningful debate on the Daily Show. But it seems as if Stewart learned his lesson: don't bring someone on the show who has superior rhetorical and argumentative skills unless that person can be verbally belittled in front of a cheering and jeering audience.
Russ summed it up
like so: "Jon Stewart accidentally commits acts of journalism; the Left howls; Stewart apologizes." Indeed. Ironically, he could have been talking about a number of "actual" journalists.