For a certain kind of conservative, the life lived in anything other than a state of war is hardly worth living. War clarifies things. War divides the world neatly between us and our enemies. War offers a kind of moral cleansing that makes one’s own transgressions meaningless in the face of the other side’s abominations against all that is right and good. War strips the world of messy, uncomfortable ambiguity.
And nowhere is ambiguity less welcome than in the world of conservative broadcasting, where Bill O’Reilly is king. So while pundit after conservative pundit proclaims that we are in the midst of World War III, battling for the survival of civilization itself, this season brings the arrival of Culture Warrior, O’Reilly’s latest transposition of his television show (and radio show, and syndicated column) to the pages of a book.
The more important war, O’Reilly tells us, is being fought here at home. “On one side of the battlefield,” he writes, “are the armies of the traditionalists like me, people who believe the United States was well founded and has done enormous good for the world. On the other side are the committed forces of the secular-progressive movement (also known as the S-P crew) that want to change America dramatically.” His goal “is to expose and defeat people who have the power to do you great harm.
My weapons will be facts and superior analysis based on those facts.”
Because let’s face it, the War on Terror just doesn’t cut it. After all, with an all-volunteer army and a president who encourages us to keep shopping in the face of fear, there isn’t much the average citizen can do to join the fight against Islamofascism. If you really want to do some righteous smiting, the best place to aim is at your neighbors.
And smite O’Reilly does, lashing out not just at plump targets like George Soros, the ACLU, or the standard collection of Hollywood liberal boogeymen, but at almost anyone who has ever criticized him. Indeed, the book is a tribute to bile; it would have more properly been titled, “God Damn I Hate Liberals.” He refers to those he doesn’t like as “radical-left guttersnipes,” “far-left fanatics,” or “vermin.”
Nonetheless—in what is just one among many cases of what psychologists call projection—O’Reilly writes, “I mean, what I don’t get about Susan Sarandon and her fellow S-P travelers is the constant anger.” Yet anger is the fuel that drives virtually every episode of “The O’Reilly Factor.” Without anger, Bill O’Reilly would be nothing; he certainly wouldn’t have so many different media megaphones. Anger is his oeuvre, his milieu, his mise en scene. A few sentences later, O’Reilly acknowledges that he gets angry because “I have to deal with a massive amount of social injustice and chicanery on a daily basis,” but doesn’t bother to explain why it’s OK for him to be angry, but not for “the S-P crew.”
Time for the full disclosure: I work at Media Matters for America, whose staff O’Reilly has called “the most vile, despicable human beings in the country” (although in Culture Warrior he goes easy, referring to MMFA only as “vile”). I’ve also been on O’Reilly’s show a number of times (though not since I joined Media Matters—the man who calls people who won’t appear on his show “cowards” refuses to allow anyone from MMFA on).
But being on the receiving end of O’Reilly’s sneers and insults isn’t the trial it might seem. In fact, there are really only two conclusions one can make about Bill O’Reilly. Either he’s a paranoid, self-deluded bully, brimming with resentment, insecure about his manhood, and consumed by hatred. Or it’s all an act.
The truth is that “Bill O’Reilly” is a character that Bill O’Reilly plays on TV, an archetype of Average Joe outrage and two-fisted pugnaciousness. There’s a reason Stephen Colbert modeled his own character—“a well-intentioned, poorly informed, high-status idiot”—on the man he calls “Papa Bear.” But where Colbert goes for laughs, O’Reilly tries to convince his viewers that he feels their pain.
You can see it in the lengths Culture Warrior goes to match O’Reilly’s conversational tone, a blue-collar vernacular meant to signal that the author is just a regular guy. On the air, O’Reilly is alone among television broadcasters in talking this way, and it is to his credit that he understands how powerful it can be in maintaining the persona he worked so hard to construct. But in print, the effect is so transparently affected it becomes almost laughable. “Oh, and one more thing,” O’Reilly will write. “Too harsh? No way.” “Am I wrong here?” “I mean, come on.” “So there.”
Bill O’Reilly desperately wants you to believe he’s just like you. To get a sense of how important his blue-collar cred is, consider the unsettled issue of exactly where O’Reilly grew up. In December 2000, a Washington Post story quoted O’Reilly’s mother saying that though Bill says he grew up in Levittown, N.Y.; in fact, the family lived in Westbury, a somewhat more affluent town a few miles away. The same Post article noted that although O’Reilly trumpets the fact that his father never made more than $35,000, he retired in 1978. That works out to just over $100,000 in today’s dollars—not enough to make the O’Reillys stinking rich, but not paltry enough to send them to the poorhouse, either.
The point is that this issue—because it bears so directly on O’Reilly’s persona as someone who pulled himself up from nothing by his own bootstraps—is one he feels very strongly about. In Culture Warrior, he goes so far as to reproduce the deed to his parents’ house, with the words “Levittown, NY” printed in the corner. In case you haven’t gotten the point, O’Reilly writes, “You are reading the words of the poster boy for U-M [upward mobility], by the way.” (The habit of turning ordinary phrases into their initials runs throughout the book. Fewer than 20 pages from the end, he stops saying “traditional culture warrior” and starts saying “T-Warrior.” When she interviewed him on “20/20,” Barbara Walters said, “You call yourself ‘T-Warrior.’ I’m gonna call you T from now on. Okay, T?” She then began her next question with, “So listen, T…” There is little indication that she was making fun of him.)
All of this is a way of forging connections between O’Reilly and his audience. His message is, I’m one of you. When you get ticked off, I get ticked off. When it seems like there are powerful forces out there that are keeping you down, I feel it, too, and I’ll fight them on your behalf. If you’re one of “the folks,” as he calls regular people, I’m your guy.
But if you want to join the fight and need to determine just what kind of person to hate, Culture Warrior can be maddeningly vague. First, many of O’Reilly’s causes barely exist outside the fevered minds of FOX News hosts; if you’d like to enlist in the resistance to the War on Christmas, there isn’t much to do unless you want to throw rocks through store windows with “Happy Holidays” signs. (For the unfamiliar, the phrase “Happy Holidays” is, according to O’Reilly, deeply offensive to Christians and represents an assault on our heritage.) Furthermore, O’Reilly’s caricature of his opponents’ beliefs is so ridiculous and hyperbolic that it puts him in an awkward position. If there is no one of any importance who actually advocates capping Americans’ net worth at $15 million or banning religious expression in the public square (both of which he claims to be part of the secular-progressive agenda), it would seem to be difficult to tar any particular individual with that brush.
So, though O’Reilly’s list of offenders is long, for many, he never specifies just what makes them part of the “S-P crowd,” other than crossing swords with Bill O’Reilly. Nancy Pelosi criticized O’Reilly for his on-air comment inviting al Qaeda to attack San Francisco, so she has “S-P fever.” About Alec Baldwin, he says, “the actor is primarily interested in politics, but there is always that progressive crossover: because he is a liberal Democrat, the
S-P forces support his philosophy.” George Clooney is “more of a far-left ideologue than an enlisted S-P culture warrior.”
What this all means is left unsaid. Even someone like columnist Jimmy Breslin is part of the conspiracy. (When Breslin criticized his last book, The O’Reilly Factor for Kids, O’Reilly says, he wrote Breslin a note that read, “you have tried to hurt a project that could help many children.
Hope you feel good about that.” The succor the nation’s youth derived from The O’Reilly Factor for Kids is hard to measure, but it seems unlikely that Breslin’s criticism set back the little ones too much.)
O’Reilly alternately portrays himself as hero and martyr, the nation’s savior and a lonely, principled voice with the weight of the world on his sturdy but tired shoulders. “There is no shortage of people trying to marginalize me, or worse, destroy me,” he tells us. “My family has also been threatened and I’ve had to change every aspect of my life. No longer can I behave as a ‘regular guy’ and go out and cut loose with my friends. No longer can I even engage a stranger in conversation—there are too many crazies out there. At work, every call I receive is monitored and every interaction I have has to be witnessed. I am never off the job and am always on guard. Would you want to live that way?”
Lashing himself to the rack with the enthusiasm of Mel Gibson, O’Reilly predicts the firestorm that his book will bring about. “The S-P power brokers will be seething, and I guarantee they will command their forces to attack me in every way possible. As in the past, personal smears will rule the day and I will be defamed from all secular directions.” Because of his fight, he writes, “I’ve paid the price, and so have those around me, because the amount of hatred directed my way is staggering.”
Yet if he is overcome by these sinister forces, we will know all the good he did. “Think about what America would be like now if we [FOX News and “The O’Reilly Factor”] had not arrived on the scene and provided Americans with an alternative to the strongly S-P established media,” he writes near the book’s end.
But ultimately, this man of courage isn’t too eager to engage his opponents. He says many times that actually arguing with them is pointless, because it’s “virtually impossible to have a reasonable conversation with an S-P fanatic.” And he admits he won’t allow “the
S-Ps” on his show, because “it is hard to imagine a more loathsome group.”
The blurb on Culture Warrior’s cover, from gossip columnist Liz Smith, is a creepy testament to how O’Reilly would like to be seen. “[Bill O’Reilly’s] aura of command is fascinating,” she says. “I left Mr. O’Reilly’s super-hot domain trying to think of whom he reminded me. It came to me: Gen. George S. Patton, complete with ivory-handled revolvers on his hips, couldn’t exude more confidence, certainty, and know-how than Bill O’Reilly.” With Bill O’Reilly, it’s all about the exuding.
O’Reilly is nothing if not a self-promoter, and as he did with his previous books, he has been hawking Culture Warrior relentlessly on his television and radio shows. No doubt many of his loyal fans will follow instructions and get their hands on a copy, and it will become, in the term its book jacket uses to describe O’Reilly’s previous books, a “mega-bestseller.” As FOX News recently conceeded, the median age of O’Reilly’s viewers is 71. Imagine three million grumpy old men shaking their fists at the television screen, a copy of Culture Warrior in hand, shouting, “You said it, Bill! Give 'em hell!”
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Paul Waldman is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America and the author of Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.