There is an unexpected silence in the liberal blogosphere after last night's highly anticipated Daily Show episode, in which Jon Stewart hosted John Yoo, the author of many of the Bush administration'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 who seemed far better prepared to defend granting virtually unlimited powers to the executive branch than ever before. Put simply, Stewart failed to make Yoo look like he had done anything wrong. In fact, he made him look entirely reasonable. Stewart fares slightly better in the extended interview, but on the whole he was visibly out of his weight class.
Stewart allowed Yoo to claim that Abu Zubayda was the "number 3 in al-Qaeda," a claim which is factually untrue. Yoo claimed that his memos allowed the government to "go up to the line" of what was torture, but in practice with Zubayda and others the line was crossed repeatedly. The experiences of the detainees who were shackled, in stress positions, had their head thrown into walls, and were doused with cold water were far different than the sanitized, clinical descriptions in the memos. He never asked Yoo whether he thought Zubayda being stuffed in a box to the point that his gunshot wounds reopened was "well beyond the line." Stewart allowed Yoo to claim the U.S. had never really considered what is and isn't torture, despite the fact that the U.S. statute against torture was very clearly violated by Yoo's recommendations and that waterboarding had been prosecuted as a crime as recently as 1983.
Stewart never confronted Yoo on the question of how the torture regime, reverse engineered from training meant to help soldiers resist torture, could possibly not be torture. Stewart never even contested the idea that torture was effective, despite the high-profile declaration of FBI Interrogator Ali Soufan that he personally extracted all of the useful information from Zubayda prior to his being tortured. When Stewart asked Yoo whether the president could electrify someone's testicles, Yoo knew how to answer the question -- having previously implied that it would be okay for the president to order a child's testicles crushed because, "it depends on why the president thinks he needs to do that." This time he shook his head. No, no, never something so barbaric.
Stewart allowed Yoo to maintain the illusion that he was a good faith actor simply doing his job, rather than someone who had deliberately distorted the facts in order to justify the unjustifiable. After being outmaneuvered for nearly 30 minutes, Stewart grudgingly admitted that he was "not very equipped to handle the discussion." It was a sobering reminder that for years, a mostly pliant press has allowed a comedian to do a reporters' job. Yesterday, we were reminded how inadequate a solution that really is.
The best Stewart could muster was towards the end, when he shrugged, "You are the most charming torture author I have ever met." It's too bad Yoo had already thrown the haymaker several minutes earlier when he assured Stewart, "I don't find talking with you frustrating."
No, no, he didn't.
UPDATE: Spencer Ackerman also has a good take.
-- A. Serwer