On October 5, 2006, Bill O'Reilly left his fellow Fox host Neil Cavuto nearly speechless with a rant against the liberal financier and philanthropist George Soros, whom Cavuto had just interviewed. O'Reilly called Soros "the single most dangerous individual in the United States of America. And his assassins, the people he hires to harm the people with whom he disagrees." When Cavuto noted that Soros had given money to many good causes, O'Reilly shot back, "Mussolini made the trains run on time, Neil." The genial Cavuto could only sputter, "Oh man—oh man."
This tirade bears all the hallmarks of the O'Reilly Factor host's current act: demonized opponents, over-the-top rhetoric, and an intensely personal preoccupation with alleged character assassins.
A confession: I used to be a bit of an O'Reilly fan. I was always put off by his authoritarian leanings, his black-and-white approach to the world, and his habit of invoking "the children" as a catchall justification for social policies; but his common-sense populism could be a refreshing response to intellectual pretensions and political correctness. Today, O'Reilly has not lost the independent streak that sets him apart from GOP apparatchiks like Sean Hannity. But shrill, intolerant rhetoric has almost entirely eclipsed intelligent discussion on his show, and his pugnacious but likable populism has given way to a paranoid and venomous self-aggrandizement.
O'Reilly cultivates an image of a giant almost single-handedly fighting for "the folks" against slimy politicians, elitist journalists, nutty professors, namby-pamby judges, and greedy corporations. Sometimes he champions unquestionably good causes, such as the rights of abused children. But even then, he undercuts his own stance with grandstanding and selective presentation of facts.
Early in 2006, for example, O'Reilly went after Edward Cashman, a Vermont judge who gave a child molester 60 days in jail (or, to be precise, suspended all but 60 days of his 10-years-to-life sentence) because he couldn't get treatment in prison. O'Reilly's campaign, which included the threat of instigating a boycott against Vermont, left out a few salient facts: that the offender was mentally retarded and apparently did not understand the nature of his offense, and that his release was contingent on constant monitoring and treatment.
O'Reilly's bigger cause is the alleged culture war between "traditionalists" and "secular-progressives" (or "S-Ps"). The cover of his new bestseller, Culture Warrior, depicts a rugged O'Reilly in a windbreaker against the backdrop of an American flag. While the book's ostensible purpose is to teach traditionalist Americans how to be good "T-warriors," much of it chronicles O'Reilly's own battle with the evil S-Ps.
For O'Reilly, the personal is definitely political. When the editorial page of the St. Petersburg Times criticizes him, he asserts with a straight face that he considers it "the nation's worst newspaper." Centrist liberals who have taken swipes at him, such as former New Republic Editor Michael Kinsley and Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, are called far-left fanatics.
The O'Reilly Factor, too, devotes a lot of time to O'Reilly's wars with his critics. He reserves a special hatred for "smear websites." One such site, which he names once in the book and has never (according to a Lexis/Nexis search) mentioned by name on his show, is Media Matters, founded by the ex-conservative David Brock. (These are the "assassins" that O'Reilly attacked in his rant against Soros.) Now, Media Matters sometimes picks on ridiculously trivial stuff—e.g., Tucker Carlson calling Bill Clinton a "sanctimonious jerk"—but it has documented plenty of egregious statements and distortions by pundits on the right. To O'Reilly, apparently, posting accurate transcripts or clips of radio and TV appearances equals a "smear."
Personal vendettas aside, O'Reilly's case against the dreaded S-Ps boils down to this: The traditionalists believe in America, free enterprise, family, faith, personal responsibility, tough penalties for criminals, and Christmas, while the S-Ps are in favor of internationalism, exorbitant taxes, a God-free public square, an anything-goes morality, coddling criminals, and "Happy Holidays."
That a lot of us do not fall neatly into either of these categories seems to elude O'Reilly's notice. It's unclear how many people he wants to brand as enemy combatants in the culture war. In the book, he suggests the secular-progressives are a small minority, using such dubious measures as the fact that 84 percent of Americans call themselves Christians. On his show about three years ago, he asserted more plausibly (judging from polls and church attendance statistics) that "secularists" made up about 40 percent of the population.
While O'Reilly tries to distance himself from extremists on the right, his attempts at balance can get confusing. Take same-sex marriage. In Culture Warrior, O'Reilly declares that he does not consider it a "vital issue"—but since most Americans want marriage to be a heterosexual institution, "the folks" should decide, as long as gays aren't denied civil protections. (O'Reilly has spoken in favor of domestic partnership laws.) Yet he also asserts that the push to legalize gay marriage—presumably even at the ballot box—is part of an effort to "secularize American society."
On February 24, 2004, O'Reilly declared: "Much of the opposition to gay marriage comes from religious Americans who believe homosexuality is morally wrong. Secularists are appalled by that judgment. And this is really what the culture war is all about, secularists who want few judgments made about personal behavior and traditionalists who believe judgments are necessary."
Thus, in O'Reilly's world, those appalled by the notion that a committed relationship between two same-sex adults is "morally wrong" oppose all judgments about personal behavior—and those who hold such beliefs on religious grounds can impose them on others through the law. (O'Reilly tries to circumvent pesky church/state issues by insisting that our laws should reflect "Judeo-Christian philosophy," not religion.)
O'Reilly's one-man culture war found its crescendo in his crusade for Mel Gibson. During the controversy over The Passion of the Christ, O'Reilly became a virtual spinmeister for Gibson (who had optioned the rights to O'Reilly's novel, Those Who Trespass). Gibson, he regularly declared, was being persecuted by anti-religious fanatics intent on sabotaging a pro-Jesus movie that could undermine their secular agenda.
In August 2006, when Gibson made headlines by delivering a vicious anti-Semitic rant to a police officer after a drunk driving arrest, O'Reilly expressed sadness and called Gibson's behavior "inexcusable"—but devoted most of his segment on the incident to media "vampires" preying on the pain of the rich and famous. (O'Reilly's passion on the subject probably has more than a little to do with his own brush with scandal: the 2004 sexual harassment suit by Fox producer Andrea Mackris, featuring an infamous transcript of Mr. Traditionalist regaling Mackris with a lurid sexual fantasy over the phone.)
In an October interview with Diane Sawyer, Gibson attributed his drunken outburst to hidden resentment over the "pretty brutal public beating" he suffered over The Passion. O'Reilly quickly embraced this bizarre "the Jews made me do it" self-justification. "I was right in the middle of that attack on Mel Gibson," he told Geraldo Rivera on The Factor. "And it was brutal.…It wasn't all Jewish people behind the attacks. But it was Frank Rich, who's Jewish, at The New York Times and other people.…That doesn't condone it, but it does explain it, does it not?" He went on to berate Geraldo for refusing to forgive the supposedly contrite actor/director.
The O'Reilly Factor always ends with a segment called "The Most Ridiculous Item of the Day." These days, the most ridiculous item of the day may be O'Reilly himself. But his culture warmongering is no laughing matter. O'Reilly does, at the moment, have considerable influence—and he uses it to whip up hatred of secularists, people with liberal social values, war critics, and others who don't fit his concept of a good American.
Cathy Young (CathyYoung63@aol.com) is a columnist for The Boston Globe.