Jon Stewart hearts Rick Santorum

Pennsylvania's senator gets a pass on "The Daily Show."

Published July 26, 2005 8:27PM (EDT)

The Crooks and Liars blog has posted a video of Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" interview with Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, which aired last night. If you haven't seen it already, click over there, watch the video, and then come back here and tell us if you agree -- with us, with many of the people commenting at Crooks and Liars, and with The New Republic's T.A. Frank -- that Santorum walked all over Stewart.

There is no nice way to describe Santorum; he's a homophobe, he's a demagogue, he's a legislative extremist, and he's got bad hair. Consequently Santorum is the most vulnerable incumbent in the Senate, trailing his Democratic opponent, Bob Casey Jr., in current polls. Yet in Stewart's soft hands Santorum came out looking reasonable, just a normal conservative guy who, even if you disagree with him, will respect your point of view.

For instance, here's what Stewart let Santorum say about sexuality (we got our transcript from Andy Towle's blog): "I would say that certainly people who are homosexuals can be virtuous and very often are. The problem is that when you talk about he institution of marriage as the foundation and building block of society which I say the family is, and the marriage is the glue that holds the family together. We need to do things to make sure that that institution stays stable for the benefit of children."

We wish Stewart had pressed Santorum on what he means when when he says "homosexuals can be virtuous people." Because in the past, Santorum has said that any person who engages in "homosexual acts" -- by which we think he means sex, and not, say, interior decorating, but with him you never know -- is immoral. In 2003, Santorum told the Associated Press, "I have nothing, absolutely nothing against anyone who's homosexual.... The question is, do you act upon those orientations? So it's not the person, it's the person's actions."

The AP reporter asked, "OK, without being too gory or graphic, so if somebody is homosexual, you would argue that they should not have sex?" Santorum answered with what is probably the least tolerant statement a national politician has made during the last two decades, insisting that letting homosexuals engage in legal consensual sex will lead us down the path toward bigamy, polygamy, incest, "man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be."

But Jon Stewart didn't ask Santorum about any of this. Indeed, Stewart didn't once suggest that Santorum's views are anywhere near intolerant -- just different. When Santorum said that children should only be raised by heterosexual parents, Stewart's answer wasn't that Santorum was a pious, pompous and narrow-minded bigot. Instead, Stewart only pointed out the impracticability of Santorum's idea. "Can you legislate an ideal?" Stewart asked.

"We have to," Santorum said. "We owe it to children. Children need a mom and a dad. There are differences between mothers and fathers. And young girls and young boys need both."

At which point Stewart essentially agreed to disagree with Santorum. "Ultimately you get to this point where it's this crazy stopping point where literally we can't get any further," he said. "I don't think you're a bad dude. I don't think I'm a bad dude. But I don't think I can convince you of the idea that I think it's doing society a disservice to dismiss the potential of all these really --" Stewart, we think, was going to say something about how gay people can be good parents, too. But Santorum didn't even let him finish that milquetoast sentiment, and instead cut in to say that allowing homosexuals to marry "could harm children."

We like Jon Stewart, really we do. With the possible exception of Winnie Cooper on "The Wonder Years" -- we hear she's some kind of math phenom -- Stewart's probably the smartest person on TV. Indeed, it's because Stewart's so smart -- and because the guys on cable are not -- that we count on him to cast a critical eye on folks like Santorum. But as TNR's Frank points out, Stewart's got a tendency to fall apart when talking to politicians. His chat with John Kerry was an embarrassing love fest. He gave Colin Powell a pass on weapons of mass destruction. And last night he allowed Pennsylvania's intolerant senator to peddle his bigotry -- and his new book -- on national TV.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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