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Both conservative and liberal commentators are marking the passing of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, the premier liberal talk show on television. My appearance in January 2010 has been offered as one of the few examples where a conservative beat Stewart at his own game (which Stewart conceded on his show the following day). Conservatives praise the appearance (see Dorothy Rabinowitz in today’s Wall Street Journal and Gerard Alexander in the New York Times), while liberals feel I got off too easy (see Time’s website).
I’m bemused that, of the thousands of episodes that Stewart has done with probably just as many guests, my amateur appearance has taken on such mythic status. I enjoy thinking of the all the hate mail that Stewart received from lefties who accused him of taking a dive in our mano-a-mano cage match. There are some lessons here for conservatives who have to respond to a hostile media:
1. Know your material. It is no idle boast to say that I knew the issues about interrogation, Gitmo, drones, and the War on Terror better than Stewart. He could ask questions that young producers prepared, but he didn’t have the time or interest to study up. A host may want to use the opportunity to score with a snarky comment, but you have the chance to deflate them by laying out your arguments with sweet reason.
2. Stewart is a comedian and entertainer. Many talk show hosts are the latter, though unfortunately not the former. The show presented an opportunity to give the facts and walk through the arguments. I had the chance to take Stewart and his audience through how we in the Bush Administration thought about gathering intelligence in the wake of the surprise 9/11 attacks. I think we acted reasonably under the circumstances; if others would have done otherwise, that is their right. We are seeing now what happens when an administration with very different views on terrorism and foreign policy has its chance to make these hard decisions.
3. Don’t repeat the same three talking points no matter what the question. I think this is what allows hosts to get an advantage on guests — they expect talking points, so they prepare to push beyond into new areas. I understand that some guests worry that the whole point of talk shows is to generate gotcha sound bites. If you’re risk-averse, that creates an incentive to just repeat the same safe statement over and over again. But I think the better approach is to listen to the questions and answer them directly. There’s no need to appear quick with a pre-programmed answer. I think it’s better to pause, think, and answer a question just as you would if it was coming from anyone else.
As Jon Stewart calls it a day, all I can say is: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to make my case to your audience.