Reading Bill O’Reilly’s new book, Pinheads and Patriots, Tunku Varadarajan remembers when the Fox News host was a breath of fresh air—not the standard bearer for aggressive closed-mindedness he is today.
Bill O’Reilly is a liar. He’s also a total pinhead, to pluck a word from his newest book, which bears the glib and gassy title Pinheads and Patriots. On page 74 he writes, “My ‘social networking’ is done in person. I don’t twitter. Or tweet, or whatever they call it. Also, I don’t chat online, use an iPod, or rely on text messaging. I refuse to do these things because they do not help me.”
Oh, really, O’Reilly? So what, then, is @oreillyfactor, a Twitter address “verified” as belonging to “Bill O’Reilly”? Dude, don’t you think anyone with the slightest animus against you—and there are millions who believe you’re the Devil’s spawn—would check this particular assertion against the facts?
OK, I don’t wish to be pedantic. There’s every chance that the Twitter account was set up by obsequious flacks after the book was written (with the Tweets ghost-written, even if the book, seemingly, was not). But the fact that this panjandrum of our brainless times felt emboldened to posture against the tools of everyday communication used by all Americans under 40 makes plain that he is resoundingly out of touch with contemporary civilisation.
How to evaluate Bill O’Reilly, poobah now, for 14 relentless years, of The O’Reilly Factor? There was a time when he was, I’ll admit, a breath of fresh air: 10 years ago, in a piece for The Wall Street Journal, I celebrated the refreshingly demotic counterweight provided to our nightly news by the likes of O’Reilly, men who were rebelling against the straight-laced and deeply anal Rather-ism (the spindly child of the straight-laced and deeply anal Cronkite-ism) that ruled our boring news screens. In American terms, news, then, was for smart people, people the British call “toffs,” not the opinionated Americans—dismissed as unsophisticated—who made up the broad “middle class.”
These people read the tabloids and listened to the radio, but O’Reilly changed that, barging into our living rooms with opinions and certitudes that masqueraded as news, thrilling a demographic that had previously been kept out of the self-righteous TV news-and-analysis loop. But with a deft sleight of hand (or mind), O’Reilly gave them slogans in lieu of analysis, certitudes instead of ideas. And his model of news-theatre, which fused entertainment with information—and which pandered to conventional wisdom instead of challenging its boundaries—abetted the growth of a class of Americans who were lazily, even slothfully, ideological, who grunted in agreement when they were scratched under the chin and bellowed in fury when their chins were left unscratched. Purr-and-bellow, purr-and-bellow.
If American society is today an ugly squaring-up of partisan platitudes, its presiding deity is Bill O’Reilly. Here he is in his squat little new book, setting up a Manichaean scheme of “patriots” and “pinheads,” utterly oblivious (one has to believe—or else, all bets are off) that he is open to characterization himself as a prize “pinhead.”
In fact, if we work on the assumption that all Americans are patriots unless proven otherwise—and why should we not?—O’Reilly’s fetishization of patriotism, and his withholding of that precious accolade from anyone he disagrees with, is both banal and incendiary.
Who is O’Reilly to say whether someone is a “patriot,” especially President Obama, who is subjected constantly to a patriotism test? Why must a man, Obama, elected resoundingly by a majority of Americans, take a “patriotism” test prescribed by a town barker, O’Reilly, who was elected to no office by anyone? And why does O’Reilly feel the need, constantly, to compare himself with Obama as a fellow “alpha male”? (He does it frequently in the book, causing me to write “ugh” more than once in the margins as I read it.) Is there a form of penis envy at work here, I wonder, or just envy of a non-penile variety? I’d say that O’Reilly, given his public role as a news servant, has an obligation—a patriotic obligation, no less—to keep his didactic, insufferable, paint-by-numbers “pinheadedness” in stricter check.
Few figures have been more corrosive to contemporary American public and political discourse than Bill O’Reilly. His omniscient braying has set a standard for a public discourse by which no one approaches anyone else with an open mind—by which all minds are aggressively closed lest there be a mistaken conclusion, somewhere, that the conservative position has a chink, or a weakness. And in this way, he has, of course, done incalculable harm to civilized conservatism. No doubt, compared with Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly is a kind Pericles. But in sad truth, for conservatives, there can only be one depressing conclusion: Once upon a time there was Bill Buckley. Now there’s merely Bill O’Reilly.
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