Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly "rumbled" on Saturday night, in a staged debate that was streamed online.
Yet the starkest difference between the two men was much more evident on Monday, when the Fox News host displayed his self-aggrandizing, it's-all-about-me impulse, and Comedy Central's mainstay turned the whole thing into a fleeting joke.
Stewart, for his part, reduced the event into an opening bit about his young son getting into trouble for repeating his phrase "Bullshit Mountain." That was followed by a couple of riotous jabs at Fox's Lou Dobbs and various other pundits in the channel's employ for their assault on "Sesame Street" and public television, with Stewart wryly noting,"Fox News is upset that empty-headed puppets are trying to brainwash and indoctrinate Americans."
But that was it. Nothing of substance about the debate. No desire to re-litigate the discussion.
Cut to O'Reilly, who never seems to miss an opportunity to make his show mostly about him.
"The O'Reilly Factor" host began by devoting his "Talking points" segment to how the give-and-take with Stewart highlighted a fundamental difference in philosophy, which he characterized as "Nanny state vs. self-reliance." OK, if you say so.
Later, he brought out his resident sock puppet, Bernard Goldberg, to provide "No spin analysis" that, of course, was filled with spin — mostly about the media's adulation of Stewart.
Notably, the clips were edited to provide some of O'Reilly's points from the debate, and a few of Stewart's one-liners. In other words, O'Reilly's remarks were presented as substantive, and Stewart's as funny, but devoid of any real content.
There's a longstanding pattern here, which is O'Reilly's desire to turn every media encounter into an opportunity to toot his own horn — and not incidentally, set himself up as a victim of the liberal mainstream media.
Frankly, I was a little surprised, but pleased, Stewart didn't devote more time to the event, but based strictly on Monday night, their handling of the postmortem speaks volumes.
Both men are members of "the one percent," financially speaking. But in O'Reilly's eyes, he's still an underdog — one of the ways he can narrow the gap, incidentally, between himself and his audience. And while I have no doubt he truly believes that he's "looking out for you" — the "You" in this case being "the folks," the majority of them over 60, who watch him — it's hard to escape a sense that what he invariably worries about most is another 60-something-year-old guy — the one he sees every day in the mirror.