Every night on "The O'Reilly Factor," sometimes six or eight times in the course of the hour, Bill O'Reilly does the Pounce. It's his trademark, his signature move, as powerful as an uppercut and about as subtle.
The other night on the program, for instance, law professor Abner Greene suggested that Florida's attorney general might have had a valid case for a statewide recount if a partial recount demonstrated evidence of error, and . . .
As Greene talked, O'Reilly's eyes widened. His chin tilted upward. And then he sprang, verbally bounding after Greene like a cheetah on a fawn. "You're doing what all lawyers do, all right?" he spat at Greene. "That's why people hate lawyers--number one, because they're not interested in fairness. You're interested in winning. And this isn't about it."
No, Greene protested, a bit dazed by the Pounce. "Under the law, under the law . . . "
"Under the law," retorted O'Reilly, "that you can squeeze and tie and drape over somebody's head! That's not right. The law was designed to be fair! The machines are non-biased! If they don't break down, forget it!"
On a later segment, Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, asserted that a Bush presidency could widen the wage gap between the rich and poor. O'Reilly coiled--wait for it, wait for it . . . --and then: "Well, look," he responded, more bemused than angry, "you can always move to Cuba, where everybody is the same, and everyone is poor. You can always go there. They would love to have you, Ms. Ireland!"
You want a thoughtful, respectful exchange of ideas? Watch Koppel. You want reasoned, probing analysis? Read a book. If pugnacious and kinetic and confrontational are more like it, O'Reilly's your man.
After four years of semi-obscurity on the Fox News Channel, O'Reilly, with his tough-guy shtick, has turned into cable TV's ascendant talk star. Propelled by the election and its never-ending aftermath, ratings for "The O'Reilly Factor," his 8 p.m. show, have rocketed--past "Crossfire," past "Rivera Live," past "Hardball with Chris Matthews." For two months running, O'Reilly has been challenging the Babe Ruth of cable chat, CNN's Larry King. The program with Ireland and Greene attracted nearly 900,000 more viewers than King's show--an astonishing feat given that CNN is available in 23 million more homes than Fox News. O'Reilly, a self-described "cocky bastard," is already eyeing his next target: "We're going after Bryant Gumbel," host of CBS's morning show, he tells his staff early one afternoon.
Just as he's bobbing up in the Nielsens, O'Reilly has also arrived at the top of the bestseller lists. His book--a quasi-memoir and rant, also called "The O'Reilly Factor"--has been No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for five weeks (helped, no doubt, by O'Reilly's frequent on-air plugs). It's the literary equivalent of O'Reilly's TV show: punchy and argumentative, and not especially burdened by research or deep reflection.
Taking a Spin
O'Reilly's newfound success, at 51, says much about his timing, his doggedness and his jump-out-of-the-screen personality. He's been knocking around TV news for almost three decades, with a resume that includes stops at TV stations in Scranton, Pa.; Dallas; Denver; Portland, Ore.; New York; Hartford, Conn.; and Boston. He reached the network level in the early 1980s, but never rose above the middle pack at ABC and CBS.
Most viewers probably remember O'Reilly from his six years as host of "Inside Edition," the syndicated tabloid TV show whose idea of a politically significant subject, according to O'Reilly, was Madonna's decision to have a baby.
O'Reilly suggests his appeal is his plain-spoken, hardheaded, Irish-Catholic toughness. He resists political categorization. ("I don't want to fit any of those labels, because I believe that the truth doesn't have labels," he writes in his book.) Instead, he revels in his self-created common-man persona--what Amy Holmes, a frequent guest on his program, describes as his "I'm-just-a-simple-caveman" approach to the news and newsmakers. Guests on his show are warned--indeed, almost threatened--that "The O'Reilly Factor" is a "no-spin zone," spin being whatever O'Reilly deems it to be.
"We're the bluntest news program on TV," he says proudly. "We give you genuine information instead of the calculated spin stuff. We're the only show from a working-class point of view. . . . These other [talk shows]--they work for each other and their friends in L.A., New York and D.C. They're all just talking to each other! It's true. I understand working-class Americans. I'm as lower-middle-class as they come."
It's a familiar O'Reilly refrain, peppered throughout his book and salted into conversation. O'Reilly practically fetishizes his "working-class background." He grew up, he often says, in Levittown, N.Y., the famed postwar tract suburb on Long Island. He recalls a childhood of secondhand cars, a small home with one bathroom, summer vacations to Miami aboard a Greyhound bus, a father "who never earned more than $35,000 a year in his life." He frequently tells the story of how, in high school, the better-off kids scorned him for his "two sports coats," bought at the unfashionable Modell's. Even today, O'Reilly says, he drives a used car.
Time out. Let's try that "no spin" thing here, too.
O'Reilly actually grew up in Westbury, Long Island, a middle-class suburb a few miles from Levittown, according to his mother Angela, who still lives in the Levitt-built house Bill grew up in. His late father, William O'Reilly Sr., was a currency accountant with Caltex, an oil company; Angela "Ann" O'Reilly was a homemaker who also worked as a physical therapist.
While hardly well off, the O'Reillys--mom, dad, Bill Jr. and his younger sister, Janet--weren't exactly deprived, either. Both children attended private school, and the family sent Bill to Marist College, a private college in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., as well as the University of London for a year, without financial aid.
O'Reilly's father was a frugal man and a wise investor. His son acknowledges in his book that his father bequeathed "a very nice chunk of change" to his mother upon his death in 1986. As for Dad never earning more than $35,000, what O'Reilly doesn't mention is that Dad retired in 1978, when a $35,000 income was the equivalent of $92,000 in today's dollars.
O'Reilly's adult experiences would seem to belie his man-of-the-people pose as well. After teaching high school near Miami just after college, he returned to school to earn a master's degree in broadcasting from Boston University. He received a second master's four years ago--this one at Harvard's prestigious Kennedy School of Government (O'Reilly was brushing up for a possible run for Congress at the time, his mother says). All the while, his broadcasting career has earned him millions of dollars. The book--and a second one in progress tentatively titled "The No-Spin Zone"--will earn him millions more. As for his used car, it's a Lexus.
Slightly Angry Populist
O'Reilly insists his TV persona--the working-class hero taking on "the big boys"--is an honest guise, despite his academic achievements and professional status. "I've had the same friends since I was 6 or 7 years old," he says. "It's not a question of money; it's a question of sensibility. You have to maintain your values. I don't go to the parties. Hell, I don't get invited to the parties. I could wear a Rolex watch. I could have a limo. I choose not to."
So he's the slightly angry populist. Nothing animates O'Reilly more than the chance to pound Washington over some alleged abuse of power or waste of the taxpayers' money. His book, as well as his "Talking Points Memo" at the opening of each show, frequently bashes "the D.C./Beltway Establishment," "the Hollywood moguls" or "the media barons" (O'Reilly's boss, Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch, fits the latter two descriptions, though O'Reilly hasn't mentioned this on the air). A classic O'Reilly refrain: The Fed has been too tight with credit, thus harming the working class. When Greenspan hinted at a rate cut last week, O'Reilly crowed, "We put the spotlight on Greenspan. And he has responded. Thank God."
Robert Reich, the former labor secretary and a frequent guest on "The Factor," says O'Reilly always gives him a "fair hearing" even though he often finds O'Reilly's commentaries "180 degrees wrong, absurd and stupid." He calls O'Reilly "an obvious conservative Republican. But he can't say [he is] on the air. . . . He can't have his perch and be an avowed conservative Republican."
In fact, O'Reilly was a registered Republican--until last week. O'Reilly acknowledges that since 1994 he was listed on the Republican voting rolls in Nassau County, where he lives. But he says it was the result of a clerical mistake, which he's rectified. "I've always been an independent," he says. "I always split my ticket. I vote for the person I think is best."
O'Reilly can certainly veer across the center line. While he usually reserves special vitriol for Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton (whose image appears on a doormat in his office), O'Reilly also opposes the death penalty, favors gun locks and supported the Clinton administration's policy in Kosovo. He speaks highly of liberal Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and names Bobby Kennedy as one of the people who have "enriched America." Depending on the issue, O'Reilly can be just as murderous on a conservative guest as a liberal one.
O'Reilly's cultural tastes are decidedly down the middle of the road. Michael Crichton, Bill Cosby, Doris Day, Charlton Heston, Clint Eastwood, Elvis Presley and "Peanuts" are on his list of favorites, as are the Hardy Boys and Santa Claus.
He's got firm opinions on just about everything, it seems. Marriage? O'Reilly was a bachelor for his first 46 years--when he married public relations executive Maureen McPhilmy, now 34--but that doesn't stop him from dispensing advice on the subject. Raising children? O'Reilly's got plenty to say about that--even though he was childless until the birth of his daughter, Madeline, 20 months ago.
Twice a week O'Reilly presides over staff production meetings, where topics for upcoming shows and potential guests are discussed. O'Reilly's crew--eight young staffers--gather around their man in the middle of the crowded Fox newsroom. One by one they throw out segment ideas. Folding his lanky 6-foot-4 frame in a chair, O'Reilly accepts them quickly or bats them right back. In either case, he rarely pauses more than five seconds on a topic.
A staffer suggests booking an Iraqi defector who claims Saddam Hussein is building biological and nuclear weapons. O'Reilly is tentative: "He's gotta back this stuff up!"
The New York Post has printed a rumor that the Clintons' Chappaqua, N.Y., house may be for sale. O'Reilly lights up. "Okay, get [the author of the article] for a 'Back of the Book' segment on Thursday or Friday."
Another pitch, for a book about charity. "You're putting me to sleep! My eyes are getting heavy."
A new push in Congress for reparations for the descendants of slaves? "We've done it four times already now. Is there something new?"
More topics fly by in a blur. Drunk driving. Guns. The psychology of Christmas giving. PETA. Boy Scouts and gays. Vigilantes on the Mexican border.
"Okay, we want it."
"No, that's stupid!"
"No, he's wrong on everything. He's wrong every time he opens his mouth!"
Someone mentions that Larry King has a new book out. "Tell him we'll give him five minutes," says O'Reilly, twinkling, "if he'll give me the same deal on his show."
Later, O'Reilly reflects, "I'm looking for emotion. That's number one. You can't be doing a policy story on drunk driving. You can't be talking about whether Ohio should have a .8 standard or a .08 standard. You've got to engage the entire country. It's a fact of modern science that most of the audience watches with the remote in hand. If they're bored, they're gone. The [broadcast] networks don't understand that."
Bill Shine, who oversees production of Fox News's primetime shows, observes of his network's star attraction, "Bill's like the uncle who comes to visit over the holidays and tells you his opinion on everything."
O'Reilly seems to genuinely enjoy the fact that some people despise him for that. He gets thousands of e-mails and letters from viewers each week, and he reads a clutch of them at the end of each program. Some of the mail is flattering ("You remain a critical cup of coffee for the sleepwalkers of our nation"), but O'Reilly delights in arguing with the people who argue with him. His replies are cheeky and argumentative--a milder version of the Pounce.
"Bill, isn't straddling the fence awfully painful?" wrote one viewer, Gay Teichrow, in a letter O'Reilly read on Monday's program. "You have become as wishy-washy as Larry King. Is that pithy enough?"
"Well," O'Reilly responded, "that's plenty pithy, Ms. Teichrow. But I think the sound on your TV set may be broken."
On another show, a viewer named Tom Martin of Berkeley, Calif., wrote: "O'Reilly, your Hollywood-style pseudo self-presentation and general antics make you amusing, but in real terms, a pathetic, empty gong."
To which O'Reilly replies, "Mr. Martin, if you don't mind me saying so, you need to get out of Berkeley."
O'Reilly estimates that his viewers are primarily "moderate conservatives," with about equal minorities of independents and liberals. The far right, he says, "hates me, so they don't watch."
O'Reilly laughs a little. His eyes are smiling. He tells a little story about his run on "Inside Edition," back in the early '90s. Once the program started moving up in the ratings, he remembers, the networks began hiring away his producers. "They took all of our people. They tried to duplicate it."
Won't happen again, he says. "You can't duplicate this [program] because you can't duplicate someone as obnoxious as me."
Which is the one factor O'Reilly counts on. It's not about politics. It's not about partisanship. It's about Bill O'Reilly.