As this blog has pointed out, author Bill O’Reilly has a gift for revising history. Now Fox News host Bill O’Reilly is attempting to pull off the same trick. “We are proud of our campaign coverage,” the King of Cable News said on his show Wednesday night. “It was accurate and tough-minded.” On the matter of Donald Trump, O’Reilly elaborated: “Very tough race for me to cover. I’ve known President-elect Trump for a long time,” said O’Reilly, who has enjoyed multiple vanilla milkshakes with Trump. “But I had to challenge him, and I did.”
A more accurate formulation: I had to enable him, and I did.
Sure, O’Reilly busted Trump in an interview in late October on his irresponsible claims about a “rigged” election. Outside of that episode, O’Reilly provided Trump with a remarkable service. All while professing to be a tough interviewer, O’Reilly repeatedly and persistently let Trump off the hook on his racism, bigotry and sexism, focusing instead on election strategy and just plain nonsense. Though it’s hard to quantify just what these repeated sessions did for Trump’s campaign, it’s a safe bet that they provided greater assistance than the interviews on Sean Hannity’s program. Those were booster sessions — very transparent and obvious booster sessions.
The pro-Trump propaganda from O’Reilly may have peaked on the night of March 3, when Fox News held a presidential debate and O’Reilly hosted some post-game interviews. He told hopeful Marco Rubio: “I’m a little amazed that Donald Trump’s support is so rock-solid at the 35-to-45 [percent] level. This new CNN poll is very high for him. And I don’t think those people are going to give him up no matter what you say, or what Mitt Romney says or what I say — and I’m fair to Trump. They’re not going to give him up.” And he asked Ted Cruz whether he thought Trump was an honest man, only to answer the question himself: “I’ve known him for about 30 years. I think he’s an honest man,” O’Reilly said of the man who turned the campaign trail into a mendacious canal.
At times the O’Reilly softballs have defied all logic, such as when — before the first presidential debate — he asked this: “If she baits you into trying to say something inappropriate or explosive or controversial, are you aware that that might happen?” As if Trump needed coaxing in that direction. In a similar spirit, O’Reilly asked Trump in December 2015 about how he “processes” personal attacks — a question better posed to the victims of Trump’s personal attacks.
When Trump got into deep trouble, O’Reilly was there. In the midst of the primary battle, the GOP candidate was under fire for wobbling on the opportunity to disavow the endorsement of former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke. O’Reilly: “I’ve spoken with Trump hundreds of times, and I’ve never heard him run down anyone because of race. He doesn’t care about that.”
Another O’Reilly trick was to dismiss Trump’s racism and bigotry by announcing that he was the victim of his opponents: “And so you understand what — what the subtext here is. They’re trying to brand you as a fascist, all right, as a person who would violate human rights, as a bigot, as a Nazi. And they’re hoping that brand will stick, at least in some people’s minds.”
In his campaign to enable Trump, O’Reilly showed an extraordinary resourcefulness. Think of the birther thing. Trump for years beat this racist drum, and here’s the question that O’Reilly posed in September: “Do you think your birther position has hurt you among African Americans?”
Not: Isn’t it racist to question the first African American president’s citizenship?
Why didn’t O’Reilly drill in on the moral disgrace of Trump’s birther campaign? Because he appears to have viewed the whole thing as a matter of electoral optics, as he declared on his show: “Although it’s not directly linked, the race situation is also a problem for Mr. Trump. Truth is, African Americans will not vote for him in any great numbers. Primarily because the Democratic Party retains credibility in the black precincts. Also, Donald Trump is identified as being a birther, someone who has questioned President Obama’s citizenship, and black Americans did not like that.” No, they didn’t.
This is a time of transitions. Donald Trump is transitioning from candidate to president-elect; his vanilla milkshake buddy O’Reilly is transitioning from serial enabler to rebranding expert.