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Mouth by mouth-western: O'Reilly vs. Matthews at SMU

Chris Matthews and Bill O'Reilly kept talking at SMU: But of course.

Note to readers: This story first appeared on Feb. 22, 2003, less than a month before the war in Iraq became a very sobering reality. It was the first and still the only one-on-one sparring match between two of cable TV's most talkative and self-righteous personalities.

DALLAS, TX -- Sound investments. Bill O'Reilly, Chris Matthews and their well-muscled mouths drew a jam-packed house of listeners this week to the Southern Methodist University campus.

Together for the first time onstage, the verbose cable news personalities clearly deserved each other. That's intended as a compliment. Two bright guys who love to hear themselves talk met their matches in SMU's McFarlin Auditorium.

The hosts of Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor and MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews otherwise are more accustomed to pummeling a hapless university professor or dominating a think-tank politico on their respective shows. This time, when O'Reilly derisively referred to Chris's pals" (namely, Democrats), Matthews shot back, "At least I got pals."

Braving snowstorms that nearly left them stranded back East, the combatants exercised decorum as well. This was, after all, the latest installment in the Willis M. Tate Distinguished Lecture Series, which later this year is scheduled to welcome Vice President Dick Cheney, novelist John Irving and former CIA director Bob Gates, who now is president of Texas A&M University.

The O'Reilly/Matthews appearance, billed as "War of the Words," may have been the comparative equivalent of the circus coming to town. But both men wore suits and ties, and generally stifled themselves while the other talked.

Late in the game, though, Matthews couldn't help himself. This was after O'Reilly said that a high-level intelligence official told him that most of Saddam Hussein's generals already had cut secret "deals" with the Bush administration. If the United States invades Iraq, they've agreed to surrender rather than be hunted down as "war criminals," O'Reilly told an audience that included former Texas Gov. Bill Clements in a front-row seat.

If O'Reilly is a political "independent," as he claims, then why do so many Bush administration officials confide in him, Matthews jabbed.

"You know why they talk to me? Because we've got a lot higher ratings than him," O'Reilly told an approving crowd.

His Factor indeed is the most-watched program on any cable news network. And O'Reilly also has authored two No. 1 bestsellers, The O'Reilly Factor and The No-Spin Zone. The former Dallas-based WFAA-TV reporter acted the part by triumphantly waving to the audience before taking his seat next to a less demonstrative Matthews.

The Hardball host immediately sought to put himself in a lion's den by asking how many Republicans and Democrats were in the crowd. "Three to one" in favor of the Republicans, he deduced before the two adversaries took poles-apart positions on the advisability of war in Iraq.

"I look forward to, in four weeks, celebrating the demise of Saddam Hussein," O'Reilly said.

Matthews said the Bush administration should find Osama bin Laden first.

"The world was behind us on that plan. And we blew that posse . . . We're going to be stuck in Iraq when we should have killed bin Laden," Matthews argued.

President Bush, whom he referred to as "the young kid," instead has fallen under the influence of the "damned ideologues" who also advised his father, Matthews said. "We will be seen as the bloodthirsty people --- white guys from the West."

Ideologues in the Middle East will "hate us whether we move him (Saddam Hussein) out or not," O'Reilly countered.

But many in that region view the Iraqi dictator as "simply bad for business," O'Reilly said, estimating that the United States could prevail in two weeks' time while the Iraqis rally around their liberators.

No one should trust "little Hans Blix," the chief U.N. weapons inspector, to carry the day in Iraq, O'Reilly said.

Both men admitted that the other could be right.

"My guess against his guess," said Matthews.

"Of course, you never know what's going to happen," said O'Reilly, who also had the night's last words before waving goodbye.

"These are people who are evil," he said. "We're not. We must defeat them."

Dare it be said that their "War of the Words" resulted in a split decision, with O'Reilly talking longer and Matthews talking faster?

Whatever your verdict, let's have a rematch.