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”).
Characteristically, O’Reilly’s book is blurbed by self-styled mavericks like Senator John McCain. Like McCain, O’Reilly tends to leave people in both parties scratching their heads. In 1989, O’Reilly was a popular TV newscaster and was also writing a column inspired by his “reportorial models” Mike Royko and Pete Hamill for the tabloid Boston Herald when local Republicans tried to draft him to mount a campaign against O’Reilly whipping-boy-of-choice Barney Frank.
“I had two problems with it,” O’Reilly says. “Number one, I’m not a Republican,” he told them. “Number two, although some of my positions are conservative, some aren’t. You know, I’m for reasonable gun control. I think their thing was, ‘Well, you’ll have to play that down.’ And I said, ‘I’m not good at playing anything down.’ ” O’Reilly, whose reactionary views tend to overflow on lifestyle matters from abortion to drugs is nevertheless a registered Independent who opposes the death penalty. “I laugh when people try to put me into this jar. I say, ‘Okay, my two role models: politically, Bobby Kennedy, and journalistically, Pete Hamill, who’s as ‘left’ as anyone – so stuff it.’ “
O’Reilly, in fact, admits grudging respect for pointy-headed liberals like Reich and Harlem congressman Charles Rangel, a frequent on-air sparring partner. Rangel, in turn, finds O’Reilly’s nod to him more than a little amusing.
“Is he a friend of the workingman?” asks Rangel, laughing. “Yeah, if you’re Irish and blue-collar and Roman Catholic. He comes from a working family, and they used to get treated pretty shabbily, so he has to find his own people to kick around. I see a lot of O’Reillys in the post office. I met a lot of them in the Army.”
Still, while he’s scored a hit with the same disenfranchised hard-hat contingent as Rush Limbaugh’s Dittoheads, O’Reilly is no Limbaugh.
“Limbaugh is a True Believer in his political ideology and wants to convert you,” he says. “I’m not interested in converting anybody. I just want to put out the truth as I see it, back it up, and then let you decide. See, this isn’t a jihad.”
This is also not mere entertainment. When I compared him to another TV curmudgeon, O’Reilly didn’t see it.
“I admire what Andy Rooney does,” O’Reilly says with a shrug. “His intellect at his advanced age is unbelievably keen. But I’m more of a populist. He’s coming at you from a sarcastic point of view: ‘Look, we all know this is an insane society and here’s what’s stupid about it.’ I’m coming at it from ‘Hey, look, the working guy’s getting hosed, and here’s why.’ “
o’Reilly’s father, an accountant, and mother were among the first wave of Brooklynites to reach for the leafy dream of postwar Long Island. O’Reilly still lives in a modest four-bedroom house on the North Shore, with no plans to upgrade even after signing on with Random House for a second hard-cover harangue, The No-Spin Zone: Confrontations With the Powerful and Famous In America, earlier this month.
His wife of five years, Maureen, 34, still works as a P.R. executive with a small New Jersey firm. He still rises early to check in on Elmo with his 20-month-old daughter, Madeline, before stop-and-going it into the city. And yes, his car does date back to Contract With America years – even if it is a Lexus.
But then, this overnight sensation actually spent years struggling to make his splash. He took the Belt Parkway to stardom – slow, roundabout creeping through the boroughs. In the eighties, O’Reilly covered gang murders in East New York and four-alarm blazes in Canarsie as a correspondent for WCBS-TV. He’s worked local TV markets from Scranton, Pa., to Dallas in his 25-year-career. O’Reilly got what seemed like his big break a decade ago anchoring the tab-TV sensation of the day, Inside Edition. But he’s also logged time in the biggest of Big Media trenches, ABC’s World News Tonight, where he was an on-air general-assignment correspondent alongside Peter Jennings.
“He felt very strongly that he is and always has been the Common Man, and he’s resented over the years what he perceived to be people who were part of the ‘Media Elite,’ whoever they might be,” recalls his old ABC news boss, David Tabacoff, now executive producer at 20/20 Downtown. “He always had this vision of what he wanted to be, the tell-it-like-it-is, pull-no-punches kind of guy. But that’s a voice that really isn’t relevant if you’re a general assignment reporter for a national news organization.”
“I never played the game,” O’Reilly insists. “And I suffered for it. I had to move ten times in fifteen years. There were a lot of people who just didn’t like me.”
The question, of course, is how he’s managed to stay sputteringly furious through all this success. O’Reilly will be the first to tell you that the angry-outsider complex comes from all those years of wrestling with the suits and trust-fund babies on his way to the top in TV. But it’s also given him a strange sort of workingman’s reverse snobbery.
“If Bill O’Reilly can become No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list for five weeks in a row, then anybody can do anything,” he says. “And I’m not saying that with false humility. I have no uncle in the business, no advantages. The Establishment press hates me, all right? They hate me because I’m a threat to them, because I watch them and I criticize them.”
Which is not to say he hasn’t also joined them on various rungs up the ladder. O’Reilly did graduate-course work at Boston University and later at Harvard’s Kennedy School, even if his nightstick intellectual style owes more to the streets – if not of his own working-class Long Island, than of his father’s Brooklyn.
“Both my parents were college graduates, but they came out of very ethnic, working-class backgrounds,” he says. “My grandfather was a cop; he walked a beat in Brooklyn. My father was from Flatbush Avenue. It was always ‘Don’t think out of the box. Be a teacher, be a lawyer, and shut your mouth.’ “
He failed that lesson. But at least many of O’Reilly’s musings wouldn’t seem out of place on a Bay Ridge barstool. Typical O’Reilly: He’s talking about getting the poor out of drug-filled inner-city neighborhoods: “They gotta get smart. They gotta get educated. You don’t scream and yell, ‘It’s the White Man’s fault.’ It may be the White Man’s fault. But where does that get you? You’re still sitting there at Lenox Avenue and 145th Street. Go to college. Then you won’t be sitting there, you see?”
Talking to O’Reilly, you get the sense that his peevishness is one of his most treasured possessions – like his collection of political letters and mementos – at least one item from all 42 presidents. He still finds time to play a little touch football with the boys back in Levittown on weekends (“I don’t talk about him being on TV or anything,” says childhood friend and current Rockville Centre cop Mike Vickery. “I don’t want to give him a big head”). And by reminding himself of who he is, and more important, who he’s not, O’Reilly manages to keep the outsider anger flickering, steady as a pilot light.
That flame has flared up a lot lately, now that he’s being asked these questions you’re only supposed to ask … celebrities. “A guy said to me just the other day, ‘Who ghost-wrote your book?’ I just looked at him,” O’Reilly says, eyes wide. “Is there anybody as obnoxious in the world as me?”