Jon Stewart, Betsy McCaughey and the “Death Panels”


Jon Stewart’s guest on Thursday was Betsy McCaughey, the former New York lieutenant governor who didn’t coin the term “death panels” but is credited with sounding alarm, as well as on the Clinton health reform plan in 1993.

Like his interview with James Cramer, Stewart and his guest went well outside the bounds of “comedy” into the details of the House health care proposal itself, debating the language of the bill in a way that I haven’t seen done in the hysteric coverage on cable news and local TV. Granted, the debate did have its moments of hyperbole: When McCaughey argued, “This bill is deadly to seniors,” Stewart said, “That’s just silly.” Stewart also mocked her repeatedly for bringing a binder with the text of the bill, but for not being able to find some of the passages to prove her points. (His recommendation: Post-Its). But at least in the extended version that was posted on the web, there was at least some effort to dissect the nature of the arguments, point by point, made against the current reform proposal, including the notion that end-of-life living will counseling will be mandatory.

As has been reported elsewhere, Stewart has been able to draw more conservatives on his show this year than you would think, and perhaps McCaughey was lured to the idea that she would have a shot at an honest discussion and could win people over in the liberal audience. Stewart punctured holes in her arguments all around, but she didn’t sulk away humiliated. “It’s like I like you, but I don’t understand how your brain works,” Stewart told her at the end. The extended interview is here.

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James Fallows writes in the Atlantic that McCaughey was able to survive Stewart in a way that Jim Cramer and Bill Kristol could not.

He writes, “The exchange is significant, because it demonstrates that there is indeed a way to “handle” Jon Stewart. You simply have to ignore what he says, interrupt and talk over him, and keep asserting that you’re right. You even can try to usurp his role as host by mugging at the audience and rolling your eyes in a shared “there he goes again!” joke with the viewers.

“In retrospect, this is the crucial weakness that in their different ways both Bill Kristol and Jim Cramer revealed in their appearances on the show. They listened to Stewart and — even Kristol!!?! — revealed through their bearing that they recognized there was such a thing as being caught in an inconsistency or presented with an inconvenient fact. McCaughey did none of that. She is just making it up, as anyone who has followed her work over the decades will know. She was not even minimally prepared for her appearance on the show, flipping aimlessly through the giant briefing book (of legislative clauses) she brought on stage. But  she didn’t let it bother her. The exchange demonstrated that if the guest reveals no self-awareness or does not accept the premise of factual challenge, Stewart can’t get in his normal licks. Future guests will study this show.”


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