With most political guests, Stewart sticks to harmless questions and gentle quips, and he seems unable to pursue an argument. Rarely have such flaws been more pronounced than last night, when Senator Rick Santorum appeared on the set.
It should have been great. Santorum, on the show to promote his new book It Takes a Family, isn't shy about sharing his views. He has blamed Boston's political liberalism for the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal; he has compared homosexuality to "man on dog"; and he has equated Democratic attempts to preserve the filibuster to "Adolf Hitler in 1942 saying, 'I'm in Paris. How dare you invade me? How dare you bomb my city? It's mine.'" Surely with material like this, Stewart could get a spirited debate going. Yet the only solid part of the interview was the start:
STEWART: [People] felt that we would not agree on a lot of things, so I'd like to start off on some common ground. I will throw the first salvo: I believe sir, that ice cream is a delicious treat. But too much, sir, will spoil the appetite. Your move, sir.
SANTORUM: I uh ... I would agree with that.
After that it was all downhill. Stewart simply began to think out loud...
Read the whole thing, which recounts the interview in detail and is very critical of Stewart. But I thought it was a decent interview. It was not the equivalent of the suck-up interview Stewart did with John Kerry during the campaign. Everyone knows how much Stewart disagrees with Santorum. The "Daily Show" audience booed last Thursday when Santorum was announced as the Monday guest. I felt that Stewart was trying to demostrate that a person that far from him politically could sit down at his table and be treated with respect.
Stewart made his points subtly, in the middle of the mushy niceness. Santorum kept talking about the "ideal" of the man-and-woman-with-children family, and Stewart accepted that ideal but asked why not include other people in that positive model even if it's a step away from ideal. He noted when Santorum equated heterosexuality with virtue and got Santorum to back away from that equation a tad.
I think Stewart was trying to make a connection and a lot of the blather was the kind of small talk that establishes that one can talk. It drew the audience in, and it drew Santorum into a relaxed dialogue. (Did you see Santorum smiling about Victoria's Secret?)
Sure, Stewart could have shredded him with harsh questions, but that's not the only way to talk about politics.