Stewart and Yoo

“There is an unexpected silence in the liberal blogosphere,” says Adam Serwer, “after last night’s highly anticipated Daily Show episode, in which Jon Stewart hosted John Yoo, the author of many of the Bush adminstration’s torture memos and one of the people most responsible for giving legal sanction to the practice of torture. That’s probably because Stewart found himself completely outmatched by a charming, tactful Yoo.”

I think Stewart’s problem was twofold. (Video here.) First, he was woefully unprepared. Yoo’s argument was, plainly, about what counts as torture. Stewart didn’t get that — or pretended not to get that, I’m not sure which — and that led him to continually act surprised by perfectly ordinary statements from Yoo. “You’re saying we’d never before considered whether torture was OK?” Stewart would ask, and Yoo would respond, “No, we were trying to figure out for the first time which interrogation techniques were torture and which ones weren’t.” That’s really not hard to understand, but Stewart continually misunderstood it and wasted the entire first segment of the interview.

But I’m not sure it mattered much anyway. The real problem with interviewing Yoo is this: once you start arguing about the legal basis of the president’s wartime powers you’ve pretty much lost the game. That’s a subject that’s genuinely complex, and a guy like Stewart will never win an argument about that with a guy like Yoo. He’ll just toss out yet another precedent and plow on.

The debate really needed to be about the fundamentals: Stewart needed to graphically describe all the things that were done — multiple waterboardings, sleep deprivation, head slamming, stress positions, etc. — and get Yoo to defend those as permissible. And when he retreated into legalisms, he should have asked Yoo whether he, personally, agreed with his own legal position. That’s a fair question for an author on a book tour.

That likely wouldn’t have worked either, but at least it would have pushed Yoo a little bit harder than Stewart’s tactic of relying on spluttering and facial tics. He needed his A game, not just a weak brushback pitch.