One of the last lucrative growth industries in journalism, apparently, is defending the working stiff. This trend started with Patrick J. Buchanan, who denounced “rootless cosmopolitans” and globalization. Then almost overnight CNN’s Lou Dobbs won a large following by transforming himself from a placid newscaster into a populist foe of illegal immigration, “global jihadists” and “political and academic elites.” But perhaps no one better portrays himself as a pugnacious champion of the little man than Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly.
That pugnacity has earned O’Reilly a small army of detractors, who have referred to him, among other things, as a thug, fraud, gasbag, windbag and demagogue. The Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who, along with Frank Rich and Paul Krugman, has made it something of a pastime to tangle with O’Reilly and vice versa, branded him a new Joseph McCarthy and Father Coughlin. All of this may be more or less true and titillating, but it is probably beside the point. The more interesting question is: How did he do it? How did O’Reilly, an unemployed has-been only a decade ago, turn himself into a moneymaking empire, complete with a Web site offering “Spin Stops Here” doormats, beach towels, bumper stickers, license-plate frames and coffee mugs, and “The Rain Stops Here” umbrellas for $37.50 — not to mention the minor matter of a Fox News contract said to be in the neighborhood of $50 million?
In “The Man Who Would Not Shut Up,” Marvin Kitman, a veteran television critic for Newsday, seeks to explain O’Reilly’s astonishing ascent. Kitman, who conducted numerous interviews with O’Reilly and his relatives, friends and co-workers, has performed Boswellian prodigies of research. If you’ve been wondering when exactly O’Reilly yelled at his wife, Maureen, for profligately ordering a bottle of sparkling water at a restaurant, Kitman is your guy.
But he aims for more than that. Kitman states in his preface that as a liberal, he relishes the chance to set the record straight about O’Reilly. He adds that via his own Newsday columns “a kind of mentoring has been going on over the years, as he has assimilated my ideas with his own and put them into practice.” Kitman does a remarkably good job of telling the story of O’Reilly’s turbulent life in clear, crisp prose. Still, if this book isn’t a valentine, it’s something of a mash note. Kitman maintains that O’Reilly is a potent (and welcome) antidote to the pap served up for decades by the television industry. What Kitman really ends up revealing, however, is that O’Reilly’s struggle isn’t about conservative ideas. It’s about parading his seething personal resentments in order to become the very thing he purports to despise: a celebrity.
O’Reilly was born in 1949 and grew up in Levittown, N.Y. His father, who decisively shaped him, had a hair-trigger temper. “Life with Dad O’Reilly,” Kitman writes with considerable understatement, “wasn’t like ‘Ozzie and Harriet,’ a favorite TV show of Billy’s.” As an accountant who had been scarred by the Great Depression and his own violent father and who never tried to move up the corporate ranks, he expected Bill to follow in his cautious footsteps. His rebellious son attended strict Catholic schools, where he loathed the young swells who got to try out for the football team while he was shunned, before heading to Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, you can go to Harvard and be a big television star,’ ” O’Reilly told Kitman. Despite his father’s admonitions, O’Reilly always stuck out: he joined the campus newspaper, where he created a furor by denouncing a teacher for reverse racism in awarding grades. It was an early lesson in how lambasting political correctness could be an easy ticket to notoriety.
From the outset, O’Reilly, who inherited his father’s emotional volatility, seems to have viewed himself as a Dirty Harry figure. During a junior year abroad, he lived in Opus Dei housing in London and rented a motorbike to visit the areas in Spain where Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns were shot; it was, Kitman writes, “an emotional experience for O’Reilly, like paying homage to the Gettysburg battlefield.”
Upon graduation, O’Reilly heeded his dad’s orders and became an English teacher in a South Florida high school, but after a year he bailed out and enrolled in the Boston University College of Communication. He hustled to write as many controversial pieces as he could, denouncing the left-wing professor Howard Zinn as more interested in activism than in teaching his courses. By 1975, O’Reilly’s own ferocious work ethic landed him his first job at a small television station in Scranton, Pa., where he was an idealistic “action reporter” who championed the little guy against the bigwigs. As O’Reilly bounced from station to station over the next two decades, one thing would never change: he always needed to be in complete control, whether it was on the air or going on his adventure vacations with his buddies.
At the workplace it was somehow never O’Reilly’s fault that his abrasive style got him fired again and again. O’Reilly’s greatest crisis, Kitman reports, came during the 1982 Falkland Islands War: he was supposed to appear on the CBS Evening News, which would be “validation for his father that he was a network foreign correspondent, that a major corporation was wise enough to have faith in him.” Instead, the CBS star Bob Schieffer cut him out of the story. (In his 1998 suspense novel, “Those Who Trespass,” O’Reilly concocted a character resembling Schieffer, who is brutally murdered.)
O’Reilly’s career was rescued by a new father figure: Roger Ailes. The ruthless head of Fox News, Ailes made him into a star by giving him carte blanche to reinvent cable news on “The O’Reilly Factor,” which he did by dispensing with any pretense of objectivity, and verbally assaulting everyone from Bill and Hillary Clinton to the F.B.I. O’Reilly functions as a kind of secular priest, alternately exhorting and berating his vast congregation, holding up impenitent sinners for minute inspection. Kitman, however, wants to turn him into a towering figure in some ways reminiscent of Edward R. Murrow, whose legend, we are told, was built on the “opinionated positions he took in his news reports.”
This is unconvincing. O’Reilly’s “Culture Warrior,” which reproduces the deed to his parents’ home to prove that he really grew up in a blue-collar town, offers the trademark bluff and bombast that make up his pronouncements. Railing against the “secular-progressive movement,” he writes that a culture war “desperately needs to be fought, because today the stakes are as high as they get. Especially when dealing with a far more brutal conflict: the war on terror.” But even O’Reilly, an expert at making mountains out of molehills, strains to point to domestic threats, dredging up one of his old standbys, the war that secular-progressives, to use his favorite term, are supposedly waging on Christmas. His other targets are no less predictable: the American Civil Liberties Union, Hollywood and that favorite bugaboo of the right, the nutty professor Ward Churchill. In truth, the culture war, equal parts reality and fiction, is petering out now that the Democratic Party has tempered its stands on a variety of issues, ranging from gun control to abortion.
Throughout these two books, there is something more than a little nonsensical in O’Reilly’s lachrymose nostalgia about his humble origins, as well as in his self-important declarations about his heroic battle to save America from the cultural elites. No matter what this apostle of mediocrity and banality says, sparkling water and George Clooney are not menaces to the American way of life.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a frequent contributor to the Book Review.