By the New York Bureau Chief
On October 15, 2004, Jon Stewart appeared as a guest on CNN’s Crossfire and told its hosts, Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala, that they were “hurting America.” Stewart objected to Crossfire‘s amped-up partisan rhetoric, which, he said, fueled screaming matches instead of substantive discussions. A little over six years later, after the Tucson shootings, we’d hear congressman after congressman lodge similar complaints about the state of political rhetoric (ironic, or better put, telling that Crossfire, like the Sarah PAC crosshairs map, seems to be a literal call to arms). On Crossfire, Stewart said that he didn’t object to debate, far from it; he just wanted an honest show that would place a premium on the exchange of ideas, not Beltway spin. This past Monday, Jon Stewart finally found that show.
The subject was Libya. The host, we all know. The debaters, Bernard-Henry Lévy and Les Gelb, were perfectly matched. BHL (as his friends call him) is a dashing, libertine public intellectual who dabbles in film, writes high-minded books, and gets mentioned in Page Six for his romantic exploits. Gelb is a former ink-stained wretch (Times correspondent) and current President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. He also writes books. He does not dabble in film. He is not dashing. He has never been mentioned in Page Six.
There are also plenty of philosophical differences that separate the Sephardic Libertine from the Ashkenazi Schlemiel. BHL, we realize a minute into his opening remarks, is a policy idealist of the dreamiest order. He, like our friend Cory Booker, enjoys basking in big words like “freedom” and “liberty.” He loves the war in Libya because it’s a humanitarian intervention that reinforces our commitment to humanist values. In fact, he was one of the war’s intellectual authors. Gelb, who’s first words on the show are “I disagree with most of what our French colleague had to say, starting with his history and going to what he thinks we should be doing right now,” is a policy realist. He doesn’t think the US should be taking the lead in the Libyan war, not so much because he disagrees with its premise, but because he thinks it’s a regional concern. BHL sees the world as romantic poetry. Les Gelb sees it as chess. Here’s a sample BHL moment:
Needless to say, Les Gelb thinks that’s all hogwash.
The Libertine and the Schlemiel rarely engage with one another. There’s a bigger audience they’re trying to convince. That audience is named Charlie Rose. The dynamic is fascinating. At some points, the show feels like a debate in the Oval Office—Charlie is the president, BHL and Gelb are two senior advisers who love their boss almost as much as they hate each other. At other points, Charlie seems like the desired woman, two suitors warring for her affections. The dominant metaphor for a dedicated Charlie-watcher, though, is of a conversation occurring inside Charlie’s head. If fused together, BHL and Gelb might very well become something like Charlie Rose—the sober-minded, libertine, realist, Francophile American sort-of journalist. BHL’s enthusiasm and bravado and Gelb’s caution and skepticism are all signature Rose-ian traits. In fact, Charlie barely has to speak during the broadcast, his presence is already felt so strongly. The two guests’ desperate need to win Charlie’s approval becomes not only the show’s animating force but its subject. By the end, Libya is almost incidental.