Mister. Bill. O. Reilly
The O'Reilly Factor runs at 8 p.m. on my local cable service. The previous program is some magaziney thing — I have never actually watched any more than the last minute of it — supervised by an agreeable young fellow with moussed hair. As he winds up his show, Mickey Mousse announces the news-on-the-hour, to be followed by … At this point he gets the studio crew to shout out from off-screen: "MISTER. BILL. O. REILLY." This little gimmick is well known in the Derbyshire household. At the appropriate moment, Nellie (aged 8) and Ollie (aged 5) shout out in unison with the Fox studio crew: "MISTER. BILL. O. REILLY." I am, you see, an O'Reilly addict.
It is not easy to say why. Sure, I am a conservative, and, sure, Fox News channel offers the only news, commentary and interview programs on my TV that do not lean harder to the left than a competition motorcyclist coming round the Druids Bend at Brands Hatch. O'Reilly is no Rush Limbaugh, though, and doesn't set out to be. He claims to be even-handed in his presentation of issues. He is, he tells us, standing up for "the folks" against the corrupt pols, self-serving bureaucrats and rogue intellectuals who seek to separate them from their money and their liberties. My guess is that O'Reilly is a Bush voter, but not a down-the-line Republican. For one thing, he lives in New York's Nassau County, whose recent Republican administration ran the county's finances into the ground pandering to public-sector unions and taking care of their friends, families and allies. He is very scathing about this in his best-selling book, also titled The O'Reilly Factor.
In pursuing the appearance of even-handedness, O'Reilly sometimes lurches into absurdity and falsehood. During the Ashcroft hearings, for example, after saying that he thought Ashcroft's appointment should be approved, he added a stiff rebuke to the nominee for having "opposed desegregation" in Missouri schools. What Ashcroft had actually opposed was the hare-brained social-engineering system of forced busing that had previously set back race relations a hundred years in Boston. O'Reilly either did not know this, in which case he is not the diligent journalist he claims to be (and does not know Boston as well as he ought, having worked there), or else he did know it, in which case he was employing dishonesty to prop up his image of impartiality.
Nor is O'Reilly a spectacularly good TV interviewer. This is probably because he is, as his book reveals, a fundamentally good-natured guy, inclined to believe the best of people unless the contrary evidence is utterly irrefutable. To be a really good TV interviewer you need to have Felix Dzerzhinsky's approach to the goodness inherent in human nature. In other words, you need a mean streak a yard wide. O'Reilly's is only about eight inches. He is not in the same league as the greats — of whom the greatest that I have seen was Brian Walden, who used to do the Sunday morning political interview on Britain's ITV in the early 1980s. Walden could make Margaret Thatcher sweat. Tim Russert has something of Walden's tenacity, ruthlessness and skill with the stiletto-fact and the ambush-question … but Americans on the whole are too nice for this kind of work.
In any case, U.S. politicians are lily-livered when it comes to subjecting themselves to probing interviews. Even though I don't think O'Reilly is in the Walden-Russert league, I should still love to see him take on Hillary Clinton, say, or Jesse Jackson. Not a chance. The sporting spirit that caused the most senior British politicians to feel they had to go in front of Walden or be scoffed at for cowardice, is not much of a factor in U.S. politics, except at certain brief, critical stages of the election cycle. (It is, come to think of it, much less a factor in British politics than it was twenty years ago.) In any case, O'Reilly — and Fox News in general — is not "mainstream," and can therefore be ignored without loss of political face. Hillary and Jesse are at the top of a long list of public figures who do not return O'Reilly's phone calls.
O'Reilly is not "mainstream," in spite of a long and very creditable career in his line of work, because the entrenched journalistic establishment has declared him not to be. The Fox crowd are still, in the minds of the real panjandrums of U.S. journalism, interlopers — uncouth poachers in the hunting preserves of the gentry. This became plain in the recent flap over Newsweek magazine running a cover story about Fox. The network is now the leader in cable TV news, having more viewers than competitors like CNN and MSNBC. Newsweek had planned to put O'Reilly himself on the cover of this week's issue, and had even set up the necessary photographs and cover art. However, Newsweek is owned by the Washington Post Company, which has a partnership deal with NBC News and shares facilities with MSNBC. It is also, of course, staffed mainly by liberals who hate people like O'Reilly, people who will not genuflect before modern liberalism's plaster saints: "affirmative action," "hate crimes," "gun control," the "right to choose," and so on. The story will run, but the cover has been deep-sixed.
In the absence of Clintons and Jacksons, O'Reilly has to ignite what combustion he can from lesser sparring-partners like Barney Frank and Charles Rangel. He does not always shine in these exchanges. Satan has given silver tongues to his most favored minions, and they run rings around O'Reilly, who, in addition to thinking only half as fast as they, is often just not as thoroughly-prepared as he needs to be. (In all fairness, perhaps there is no way he could be, doing the job every weeknight. Walden did one interview a week, and Russert does not do much more, I think.)
Yet still I watch, for at least as long as it takes for O'Reilly to deliver his opening editorial ("Talking Points") and tell us who he will be interviewing. For all his faults and irritating self-advertisements ("We're honest here on the Factor …"), O'Reilly has a direct, engaging style, and a cheerful irreverence towards the shibboleths of our age. The "Talking Points" are often banal, but just as often incisive. O'Reilly's refusal to defer to public figures — especially credentialled academics — is very refreshing. He is not afraid to be rude, or to lose his temper, or to go where other TV journalists would not dare to go.
The most recent instance of this latter audacity is his ongoing campaign to get the authorities — Congress, the IRS, the press, anybody — to investigate Jesse Jackson's tax-exempt finances. I have the impression that the phrase "investigate Jesse Jackson," if uttered amongst any gathering of Washington D.C. movers and shakers, generates much the same effect as switching on the light in a kitchen full of roaches. Not so in O'Reilly's studio. The man is in dead earnest. Last Friday he had on his show one Sheldon Cohen, a former Commissioner of the IRS. O'Reilly waved some published returns from the Citizenship Education Fund, one of Jackson's tax-exempt personal ATMs. "Twelve million dollars, this outfit took in, Commissioner. Twelve million dollars! And you know how much they spent on actual education? Forty-seven thousand! Can you tell me why the IRS should not be all over this?" Ex-Commissioner Cohen was obviously a man steeped in the bureaucratic mentality, unable to believe that there could be anything wrong with the IRS that a few more boxcar-loads of taxpayers' money couldn't fix. "If the IRS were properly funded …" he murmured. O'Reilly laid into him with a nail-studded shillelagh.
"This is why the bandits are getting away with it … They know you guys don't care."
"Believe me, the people at the IRS care …"
"I don't believe you for a second, Mr Cohen, and I don't think anybody watching this broadcast believes you either. I think this is a disgrace, and I think the IRS is a disgrace."
O'Reilly is especially good at dealing with sociobabble. A few weeks ago he was looking into the abortion rate among black Americans, which is apparently three times higher than for nonblacks. Why was this? he asked some black female academic sociologist he was interviewing. The academic launched into a long anesthetic drone about "life experiences," "opportunity awareness," "societal parameters," and the like. O'Reilly put up with the sluggish lava-flow of gibberish for a while, then interrupted: "Excuse me. I'm an intelligent guy, but I don't have a clue what you're talking about. You got an answer on this?"
O'Reilly is indeed an intelligent guy, but this is still TV we are talking about. As a commentator, he is no heavyweight. I would not claim for O'Reilly — I doubt he would claim it for himself — any great powers of insight or depth of understanding. His knowledge of history seems to be frozen in high-school clichés. In his book, for example, he describes the administration of Warren Harding as sensationally corrupt. This is a conventional judgment, but not a true one. Sure, Warren had a zipper problem, enjoyed a game of poker and a drink (the latter unfortunately illegal at the time) and made a couple of bad appointments. His administration was, however, not even approximately in the same league as Kennedy's, with its Paraguayan-style alliances between politicians, union bosses and the mob, and its naked nepotism. Even less could it be compared to the flagrant auctioning of national interests for cold cash that went on through the Clinton years.
Nor does O'Reilly's book betray much passion for what 18th-century folk called "the pleasures of the understanding" — literature, art, science, serious music and conversation above the level of gossip. He has that very peculiarly American attitude to foreign places described by Peter Brimelow: that is, he does not really believe they exist. "There are more Irish Americans in [New York] city than there are in Dublin," he writes blithely. It's a slip, but a revealing one. (I wrote a novel about Chinese immigrants in America, one of whom referred to himself as an "oriental." A reviewer scolded me for this. "Oriental," she instructed, is OK for rugs and antiques, but will not do for people, for whom the proper term is "Asian-American." So I guess Mao Tse-tung was an "Asian-American.") O'Reilly writes well, though — better than most academics. He has actually written a novel, Those Who Trespass, which sounds like — I confess I haven't read it — a lot of fun.
And thanks to his lower-middle-class background, his childhood religious training, his capacity for reflection, and his journalist's cold eye, O'Reilly knows those large and small truths that most of his competitors do not know. He knows that most "celebrities" have had their personalities destroyed (those of them who were endowed with any personality to begin with) by too much of other people's attention. He knows that the desire for material things is a moral and spiritual dead end. He knows that anyone who pays four dollars for a cup of coffee is in need of a psychiatrist, and that anyone who knows who Martha Stewart is should really get themselves a life. He knows that most of the rich and powerful live out their lives perfectly insulated from ordinary folk, about whom they could not care less. He understands the broad, fathomless silliness of our culture, of which, five hundred years from now, not the merest trace will be remembered. He knows that Saturday Night Fever is one of the best movies ever made. He knows that Americans are outrageously over-taxed, and that most of the money ripped from their pockets by force of law is flushed down the toilet or given to civilization's enemies (criminals, lunatics, foreign barbarians, the terminally feckless, Jesse Jackson). He knows that money is the root of all evil. He knows that the Clintons are vermin.
And yet his book reveals that O'Reilly is no cynic. He has that indefatigable optimism about human nature, and about the prospects for this Republic, that represents the very best of the American imagination and makes us foreigners love this country more than our own. While understanding that human life is much more like a gruelling mountain hike than a Caribbean cruise ("more wrestling than dancing," as a Roman emperor famously observed), he assures us — correctly, of course — that there are some wonderful views along the way, if we will just take time out to enjoy them.
So if you have not yet done so, take an hour from your schedule to watch MISTER. BILL. O. REILLY — or better yet, read his book. Oh, hey, he's not Edmund Burke: but in TV-land — the land of Sam and Cokie, of Larry King slobbering over terrorist psychopath Gerry Adams, of Katie and Bryant with their tongues all covered with Bill Clinton's shoe polish, of Dan and Tom ("Biased? Us? Don't be ridiculous! We're above all that, you know"), of Ed and Morley and Mike and Leslie with their eighty-fifth "exposé" of the heartlessness of Big Tobacco (I can never watch 60 Minutes without being overcome by the urge for a cigarette) and their forty-ninth "special report" about the disgraceful way the U.S. military has of inculcating aggressiveness in its recruits — in that vast pink desert of TV news journalism, this man is an oasis of good sense and decency.