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Bull Fighter

Angry? Definitely. Obnoxious? Proudly so. Bill O'Reilly has parlayed his pugnacious style into a top-rated Fox show and a Times number-one best-seller. But is it possible to be a common man and a media potentate at the same time?

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One of the many, many, many things that make Bill O'Reilly angry is being called a celebrity.

O'Reilly scrunches that doughy, Fenian mug of his at the very mention of the word, as if that D-train-in-August odor had just wafted into his corner office at Fox's Sixth Avenue tower here, a few weeks before Christmas.

"Maybe that's how I'm perceived in some quarters, but that's not how I see myself," snorts the Long Island-reared populist who's recently emerged from the pixilated fog of the early-evening cable news shows to nail a multimedia exacta worthy of Brokaw or Jennings: a top-rated television news hour and a No. 1 nonfiction best-seller -- each known, not coincidentally, as The O'Reilly Factor.

The book appeared on the nonfiction best-seller list twelve weeks ago; it's been No. 1 for the past six.

"I'm not buying a house in the Hamptons, and I'm not going to the wine-and-cheese parties in SoHo. I drive a 1994 automobile, and I've never been to Balthazar. I can't even say 'Balthazar,' " says O'Reilly. Seated behind stacks of fan mail in his Sixth Avenue office -- with e-mails, he's received some 35,000 pieces per week since the publication of his book in September -- this former Marist College starting quarterback unfolds his six-foot-four frame that once encouraged dreams of fame in another arena, professional football.

A celebrity . . .

"It's the stupid, foolish press who spends all their time talking about celebrities like Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones and their $2 million wedding," he sneers. "Look, I wouldn't walk around a corner to see those people."

Plenty of people, however, will apparently turn any corner to see him. After 25 quiet years in the TV-news business, O'Reilly, 51, scored his own show when the Fox News Channel debuted four years ago. The O'Reilly Factor was sort of a Jim Lehrer Newshour for the mullet set, a plain-spoken, opinion-drenched survey of the night's headlines along with interviews with the standard-issue Washington-New York power-loop pundits like Robert Reich and Newt Gingrich. O'Reilly's book threads his own pugilistic, up-from-Levittown life story through the same tapestry of crusty, if informed, ad hominems -- against Bill Clinton, South American drug lords, and Warren Beatty -- that marks his TV show.

"The Establishment press hates me, right?," O'Reilly says. "They hate me because I'm a threat to them."

This could be why O'Reilly is that rare New Yorker whom Middle America adopts as its own. He's the natural embodiment of the very straight-talk approach that Roger Ailes, his boss at Fox, and Rupert Murdoch have tried to build the network around, but he comes without the strictly partisan Republican baggage. He is, in other words, the pissed-off, middle-aged, outer-borough-ish white guy who's come at last to claim that broad lunch-pail demographic that hasn't had anyone to root for since Archie Bunker left the airwaves (even if Arch's troglodytic race and gender views spark the same white rage in O'Reilly that $4.30 Starbucks Mocha Frappuccinos do).

The numbers, at least now, seem to confirm this. A chart of his show's ratings traces the same angle as the arm of a Bronx cabbie flipping the bird in Times Square. After flat-lining for years, the ratings graph hits a right angle around September, spiking almost straight up.

A vast segment of prime-time America is now looking past Chris Matthews and Geraldo Rivera toward this overweening Long Island know-it-all as their man to tell it like it is. A no-bullshit guy who seems to be sick and tired of just about everything that is false, venal, and, worse, confusing about American politics seems perfect for a country whose brain has long since hit overload over the election mess.

Still, the O'Reilly Moment has been so sudden that even the people at the Fox network seem a bit ill-equipped to explain it. O'Reilly's December 4 show, delivered at the height of the Florida mess, shattered even his own records, attracting 2.3 million viewers, outpacing the number tuning in to CNN's Larry King, long the evening cable benchmark.

Not that success has mellowed him. "If you're not angry," he says, "don't be a journalist. Be a barber, you know? Because journalists have to have a sense of outrage. We don't see that now. We see every Miss America go, 'Oh, I want to be an anchorwoman.' That's swell. That's just what we need."

Conveniently, much of O'Reilly's righteous fury is aimed at paranoid Middle America's favorite Shuttle-riding straw men: Washington string-pullers, Manhattan plutocrats, and -- of course -- Big Media. "People are angry at the media," O'Reilly says. "Because the media is supposedly created to represent them, and the media doesn't. The media represents the moneyed interests and the powerful in Washington and the movie stars out in L.A."

O'Reilly, on the other hand, wastes no opportunity to state that he's allied with the people. His approach, be it genius or shtick, has been to cast himself as an emblem as much as an anchor. "He's just saying on the air what the guy at home is screaming at his TV -- 'Cut the crap!,' " says O'Reilly's former colleague Bill McAndrew.

On one recent telecast, O'Reilly is sitting across from Fox business anchor Neil Cavuto. O'Reilly's sputtering about how this election madness is murdering the Dow and destroying 401(k)s for the little guy the country over. Cavuto explains how oil prices and earnings shortfalls have more to do with the market free fall than septuagenarians in Palm Beach County.

"I don't care about macroeconomics," O'Reilly says, cutting off Cavuto. "I care about the folks."

O'Reilly can't seem to go ten minutes without gleefully acknowledging how "obnoxious" he is. His book delivers on that front. It's not, for one thing, a particularly modest undertaking. Its twenty chapters break down, basically, the entire sweep of American life: "The Politics Factor," "The Dating Factor," "The Friendship Factor," etc.

There are the standard O'Reilly harangues against all that is "ridiculous," a word on which O'Reilly apparently believes he has a patent: Ridiculous are those spoiled baby-boomers who are spoiling their children even worse. Ridiculous is Roseanne Barr ("Her trash-mouth character didn't represent the 'working class'; it was a put-down"). Ridiculous, even, is Chinese food, it seems ("It's so gooey I can't tell what's in there").


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