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A presidential debate makeover

Two years ago, I wrote a piece called “Jon Stewart for president.” I had spent the day on the National Mall observing the “The Rally to Restore Sanity.”

Although many people felt that it was going to be a partisan tip of the hat to the left, it was not. Some media outlets, such as NPR, had even forbidden its staff to go to the rally, as it thought it was going to be one big anti-GOP event. In fact, true to his word, Jon Stewart did not limit his television clips to the right-wing nutcases; he included clips from left-wing nutcases as well.

Fast forward to two years later. In the middle of debate season, Jon Stewart and Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly decided to have their own debate titled, “The Rumble 2012.” Because it was produced by both Stewart and O’Reilly and not by the Presidential Debate Commission, audiences were able to cheer and groan. Both of the debaters were allowed props. O’Reilly had signs with his positions, and Stewart had a lift in back of his podium that could go up and down making him taller.

Clearly, both men were patriotic Americans who see the world from different perspectives. As a liberal, I think Jon Stewart won. He had some great zingers, such as when he said that Viagra was covered on health insurance but birth control was not. He also kept referring to the Republican meme as BS Mountain (said without the initials). Both O’Reilly and Stewart kept going back to their themes. O’ Reilly backed up Mitt Romney’s position on PBS, said he didn’t pay his taxes to pay for Bill Moyers and that Bill Moyers ought to compete like everyone else. For his theme, Jon Stewart kept on insisting that we’re a social democracy and that we all accept Social Security.

There were some great one-liners, things that made everyone laugh, not just the partisans. O’Reilly trumped Stewart for not meeting with Netanyahu because he had to go on the “The View” and Stewart trumped him with the fact that there were nine attacks on American consulates under the watch of George W. Bush. Stewart got his point across that we were not an entitlement society but that humans are entitlement species. O’Reilly knew his facts cold on the deficit.

The debate did not sweep our pressing issues under the rug; it took them on head on. It was a lot easier to listen and watch than the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney Wednesday night. The ease of watching it reminded me of a professor in Seattle, Wash., in the mid-1970s, a medical doctor who years ago hired an actor to give a lecture to mental health professionals. The actor was instructed to make no sense. He had the psychiatrists and psychologists and social workers sit through the lecture and then watch a rerun of it. No one guessed it was a hoax either time. His conclusion? Hire actors to teach medical students the needed material so they would be more interested in the content.

What if we had Stewart and O’Reilly as stand-ins instead of watching the painful presidential debate last week that 67 million people tuned in to watch?

What if the audience could ask the real questions of our two presidential candidates? At the Stewart/O’Reilly event, they were good questions and included, “If you were supreme ruler what kind of government would you choose? How would you modify the health care system? Can you share willingness on why you could come together? What would justify voting for Obama this time? Jon Stewart was asked: Who is your political hero?

What the Rumble proved is that we can have real discourse, discuss real issues and that we can have fun doing it. The presidential debates are missing fun. It has become a chore to watch them. Time for a bit of levity and back and forth banter that we might have among friends. Perhaps the Presidential Debate Commission could learn something, and so could the candidates. America would be better served.