Paul Begala co-hosted show where Jon Stewart launched attack on "Crossfire"
He says Stewart shared a thoughtful critique of show after the cameras stopped
Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House. He is a consultant to the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
I still remember sitting on the set of “Crossfire” that day in 2004 as the floor manager counted down to blastoff. I was thinking: “Jon Stewart, wow. I hope Diane is watching.” My wife, truth be told, rarely watched “Crossfire,” but she rarely missed “The Daily Show.” By the time Stewart finished disemboweling my show, I was hoping she wasn’t watching.
From my perspective, the show that day was a debacle. I was unprepared for the onslaught since Stewart had recently been on “Hannity & Colmes” (Fox News’ truly awful knockoff of “Crossfire”), and had not attacked that show at all. But he had a different agenda this day. I thought his charge that a 30-minute debate show was “hurting America” was fatuous. But I love direct confrontation (obviously). And I was not defensive because, as a former senior White House official, I know that being a cable TV host would never be the most important thing I do in my career. So I was actually interested in hearing Stewart’s full critique of “Crossfire.”
I heard that full critique eventually, but the audience never did. The show went off the rails and Stewart, who began by denouncing our hostile environment, was within minutes calling Tucker Carlson “a dick.” So he never got to deliver his thoughtful, insightful criticism of our show – until after the cameras were turned off.
When the show ended, Stewart and his executive producer, Ben Karlin, sat with me and “Crossfire’s” executive producer, Sam Feist, for 90 minutes. We had the kind of thoughtful, respectful dialogue that our audience deserved but never got. It has been 10 years, and I do not have contemporaneous notes. And, as we have been reminded recently, memory is a tricky and unreliable resource. Still, this is what I remember from our chat:
Stewart thought it was absurd to pretend every issue could be reduced to a forced choice between the right and the left. I thought that was a good point. Some issues have seven sides, but better to air two than none.
Then he said we deliberately booked the show to provoke division. Guilty. A discussion of religion, for example, would feature a debate between, say, the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Al Sharpton, when the truth is most believers fall somewhere in between. His criticism stung because I agreed this was a major shortcoming of our program.
Stewart’s third point, though, is where we parted company. I asked him how he would organize a show like ours. He suggested that, on Social Security, for example, rather than two opposing politicians, we should get the nation’s foremost expert – say, from Harvard – and ask him or her what should be done to shore up our retirement system. I told him that was silly, forgetting that this is precisely what he tries to do with his “Daily Show” interviews.
This is not sophomore philosophy, I told him. There is no objective, Platonic truth. Some people, like me, believe retirement should be partly socialized. Others, such as Tucker Carlson, believe in a purely private system: If you don’t save for your own retirement, your neighbor has no obligation to bail you out. Both arguments have roots in the American spirit: We are at once wonderfully communitarian and intensely individualistic. I felt then – and now – that rather than pretend there is not a major philosophical difference, or that there is one objectively perfect solution, we should debate our policy options vigorously.
I still think Stewart’s version of politics is naive. Washington is not – and should not be – the Holland Tunnel, where each side each takes a turn. Giving John Boehner control of the House on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and Nancy Pelosi the gavel on Tuesdays and Thursdays would be madness.
The Founders designed the system to create conflict: that’s why we have three equal branches of government, each checking the other. And yet Stewart did have a point about excessive partisanship. He called me a hack – which I am, if by “hack” you mean someone who is a true believer in a particular political worldview. I believe deeply in the Democratic Party’s vision for America – and yet I also believe there is a time for bipartisan cooperation, and was proud to work for President Bill Clinton as he pursued many bipartisan efforts.
Then and now I believed we needed more partisanship, not less, in the run-up to the Iraq War. I was a vociferous, bitter opponent of George W. Bush’s war. What hurt America is that too few people were yelling about the looming disaster; too many were cowed into going along with the bipartisan consensus that we should send other people’s sons and daughters to fight against a country that posed no threat to America. I am proud I was a loud voice of opposition.
As I recall it, Stewart heard me out earnestly. Despite the televised food fight we’d just been in, he was gracious and respectful, curious and thoughtful. As he got up to leave, he left us with this moment of Zen: “Imus came to Washington and bashed you guys, and he got like 300 new stations. So I think this will work out for me.”
It also worked out for me. CNN canceled “Crossfire” but has kept me on as a contributor, a role that I prefer. It gives me far more freedom than “Crossfire” did. Rather than always narrowly toeing the party line, I am more free to criticize my people, for example, when President Barack Obama failed to go to the Mexican border to see the child immigration crisis firsthand.
I have not spoken to Jon Stewart since that day. I ran into him in a hotel lobby once, and he darted away like he’d seen a ghost. When I had a book I wanted to plug on his show, he wouldn’t take my call. But I have remained an avid fan of “The Daily Show,” and will miss his searing, satirical wit. Even though he no doubt can’t stand me, I stand by my introduction of Stewart that day on “Crossfire”: He is both the smartest funnyman on TV and the funniest smart man on TV.