On Saturday night, a packed Lisner Auditorium played host to a unique bout.
In one corner, standing at “a gargantuan 6 feet 4 inches tall,” according to moderator E.D. Hill of CNN, was Bill O’Reilly, host of “The O’Reilly Factor.”
In the other corner, standing at a “Hobbit-like” 5 feet 7 inches (though periodically taller thanks to an electronic platform), was Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show.”
The two men came together for “The Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium,” a raucous debate that touched on everything from government spending to the “war on Christmas” to Big Bird. Mr. Stewart and Mr. O’Reilly, well known for their opposing political ideologies, went head to head during a 90-minute debate at the George Washington University.
In his opening statement, Mr. O’Reilly criticized President Barack Obama as the “biggest-spending president in history” whose policies are creating a culture of entitlement and stifling free enterprise.
“About 20 percent of us are slackers. We are spending an enormous amount of money on 20 percent who for whatever reason are not going to make a living,” Mr. O’Reilly said as he held up a sign that read, “Debt is Bad.” “Now, the reason President Obama will tell you he is spending a lot of money is because of Bush.”
“How many people think it’s Bush’s fault?” Mr. O’Reilly asked the audience as cheers erupted. “Bush. Is. Gone,” he replied, while holding up another a notecard to emphasize the message.
Mr. Stewart fired back, bemoaning the creation of an “alternate reality” that many conservatives seem to inhabit when discussing issues such as government regulations, birth control or the president’s nationality.
“I call this alternate reality, this place where these folks live Bull**** Mountain. The residents of Bull**** Mountain believe many things. They believe that a Kenyan Muslim president has fundamentally changed the relationship between government and the people of this country. On Bull**** Mountain, they believe if they built it, it was because of their success. But if life didn’t work out for them, it is the government on their back,” said Mr. Stewart.
Mr. Stewart and Mr. O’Reilly tangled over how to deal with the federal budget deficit. In the first presidential debate last week, Mitt Romney said that even though he “loved Big Bird,” he would cut funding to PBS. While Mr. O’Reilly supported cutting funding to public television, Mr. Stewart mocked the idea.
“We face a debt crisis that we’ve never faced before,” Mr. Stewart said. “We are merely weeks from being a failed state, or even worse, Greece. And the way to solve that problem is to kill Big Bird?”
Mr. O’Reilly argued that he didn’t want his hard-earned tax dollars to go to something he doesn’t agree with, like birth control for women.
“When you get a Sandra Fluke saying I’m entitled to my birth control paid for by the taxpayers, that’s insane,” he said.
Mr. Stewart sympathized with Mr. O’Reilly about having his tax dollars go to something in which he didn’t believe.
“Welcome to the club. Give me my money back – the $800 billion from the Iraq war,” he said as he elevated his platform to its highest level.
While the debate touched on foreign policy and health care, it continued to come back to entitlement spending.
Mr. O’Reilly argued President Obama has made it easier for people to get access to entitlements.
“They advertise on the radio for food stamps,” he said.
“Why is it if you take advantage of a tax break and you’re a corporation, you’re a smart businessman, but if you take advantage of something you need to not be hungry, you’re a moocher?” Mr. Stewart countered.
Half of the net profits from ticket sale proceeds (including on-demand access) went to charities including the Wounded Warrior Project, Doctors Without Borders, the USO and the Alzheimer’s Association. While the event was intended to be live-streamed, there were technical issues, which precluded many from accessing it. However, the video is still available for download at the event’s website (http://www.therumble2012.com/
Mr. O’Reilly and Mr. Stewart also touched on the “war on Christmas,” a popular theme for Mr. O’Reilly, who has complained that the holiday is under threat because businesses and governments are increasingly sensitive about using the term “Christmas” for fear of causing offense.
“If we think Christmas isn’t celebrated in the country as Christmas, walk a mile in Hanukkah’s shoes,” Mr. Stewart said.
“We won the war on Christmas, number one,” Mr. O’Reilly responded.
Ms. Hill, a news anchor for CNN, recognized the two TV personalities for being able to come together and have an intelligent debate despite having opposing political viewpoints.
“This idea that disagreeing with somebody even vehemently means that you shouldn’t engage them is ridiculous,” Mr. Stewart said, referring to the current Congress. “We’ve lost our ability to problem solve.”
The two men ended the evening by putting the zingers aside and giving advice to today’s youth.
“Young pinheads,” Mr. O’Reilly said. “Work hard. Be honest. Get off the net. Go outside. Travel as much as you can. Find what you’re good at and make money doing it.”
Mr. Stewart said he continues to be inspired by the next generation and their commitment to making a difference in the world.
“There is no generation I would more entrust with the future of the country than this one. I believe that this is a group that will rise up to any challenge that comes before them,” he said. “And my advice is ‘please don’t think of me as an entitlement moocher when I’m collecting my government benefits.’”