This review by Florence King appears in the April 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to the monthly print edition, click here.
The Man Who Would Not Shut Up: The Rise of Bill O'Reilly
by Marvin Kitman
(St. Martin's Press, 318 pages, $25.95)
I SPEAK TO YOU FROM my bed of pain. This book does not start getting good until Chapter Sixteen, but there was no one to advise me of this so I foolishly read the first fifteen chapters first and have the CT-Scan results to prove it.
I should have read the book backwards but I didn't and now I am paying for the author's compulsive fidelity to chronology at all costs. What he should have done is written it backwards, kicking off with the Mouth of O'Reilly Present, then gone into a flashback on the Mouth of O'Reilly Past, and last, summed up his predictions in a final chapter called the Mouth of O'Reilly Yet to Come. This would have won O'Reilly's approval in view of his famous campaign to rescue Christmas, and put some space between the wheat and the chaff that we are asked to digest.
Instead we begin with his birth -- 1949 or the Year One, take your pick -- in what O'Reilly the proud prole insists was working-class Levittown, Long Island, and what his enemies insist was a higher class suburb, and immediately find ourselves reading through a wrangle about zip codes and presented with a photocopy of the deed to the family house with Levittown clearly visible on it. The same class-based picayune contention springs up over his school: Was it an elite Catholic academy or not? To help us get to the bottom of this we hear all about the nuns, the priests, the library, the grounds, the athletic field, scholarly priorities, and academic philosophy, all detailed in verbatim interviews of anyone who ever saw or heard of the place.
The Mouth of O'Reilly Past dominates these early rambling interviews, his unselective ego taking as much pleasure in bragging about a fight in the hallway as it does in bragging about demolishing a famous politician on TV. The boast is the thing; all boasts are equal. When recalling his school days he boasts about sports. He went out for everything, always choosing, says Kitman, the position that would make him the center of attention: pitcher, quarterback, goalie.
"I was so much better than what they had, you know, it was ridiculous. I mean, it was absurd. I remember the punter... you know...Boom!... And everybody was like... and then they were going for field goals. The holder, you know, the guy, he takes the snap, intentionally turned the laces in to me because he didn't like me, didn't want me on the team...."
"I made the varsity hockey team," he sighs, but his working-class family had no money for equipment so "I had my mother sew a pad that covered my arm.... I bought second-hand leg pads, you know, leg pads that had been around since Gump Worsley's day. The other kids were affluent, you know, and looked great," while poor O'Reilly looked like a ragamuffin on ice. "But I was so tough. I mean, I would do anything just to not let that puck go in the goal."
Blah, blah, blah. On and on it goes, what every man has heard in a bar, what every woman has heard on a date, with, in O'Reilly's case, the inevitable additional boast about his height of six-foot-four and all the shrimps who resented him for it. "This coach, he hated me, he was like five-four.... So here's this guy, see, he's about five-eight... And I stand up, and he's like, you know, looking way up...." Just when we think we can't stand another reference to his height, one of the rambling interviewees earns the reader's eternal gratitude with, "He was tall but he was slow. Those skinny legs wouldn't support him."
It gets even worse. When he started working he made sure he had a sycophantic roommate to help with the bragging as well as the rent. Teaching high school history in Florida, he lived in an apartment near the Miami Airport, where, said his breathless roommate, "the stewardesses were hanging from the balcony, falling through the door, I mean, like, they were always coming over -- Jeez, you shoulda seen 'em... girls all over the place!" O'Reilly thrived on this reverent Sancho-Panzaness, so much so that he needed no other stimulants; he never took drugs, smoked neither marijuana nor tobacco, and never drank -- like Agnes Gooch in Auntie Mame, his favorite beverage was and is Dr. Pepper.
When O'Reilly entered journalism the profession witnessed "his uncanny ability to divide a newsroom. Wherever he traveled, he was like Moses parting the Red Sea, those who hated him and those who loved him." He has had so many TV jobs that they run together in a blur of fights -- O'Reilly screaming "shut up!," O'Reilly calling people pinheads, O'Reilly jerking an editor by the necktie, threatening to break somebody's arms, bursting into a television executive's office to demand on-camera credits, confronting Dan Rather about Bob Schieffer's theft of his footage when they covered the Falklands War, and O'Reilly making Schieffer a corpse in Those Who Trespass, his novel about a TV reporter who turns serial killer to take revenge on his enemies. His most loutish act while at CBS, which earned the wrath of Bill Paley himself, was his attempt to question New York Governor Carey in a receiving line about why Mrs. Carey was so unpopular with the voters -- while the Governor's white-gloved Lady stood beside her husband, listening to the whole exchange.
All the uproars, bawled threats, and murderous fantasies notwithstanding, they add up to 25 years of experience in local TV, network, telemagazines, and cable. It's more than anyone else can claim, making O'Reilly the most seasoned and well-qualified journalist in the business, somebody to be taken seriously whatever one may think of him.
MARVIN KITMAN MATCHES O'REILLY in experience, having been Newsday's TV critic for 35 years. An admitted liberal, he neither loves O'Reilly nor hates him, but places himself in a third group: "guilty of liking him -- with an explanation. I don't agree with much of what he says but I like the way he says it. His rage burns like the escaping gas at oil refineries. He is perpetually upset. Every night he brings passion to the tube...his need 'not to let those bastards get away with it' is an eternal flame, a nuclear pile of anger continually recharging itself....Those are the things that won me over. I liked O'Reilly's anger. He goes after the dragon."
It was this aspect of O'Reilly that explains why it took Kitman so long to publish this book. It was finished originally in 2003, but its subject is so "terminably pissed off" that constant new crises and explosions made it necessary to keep adding to the manuscript. There were, for example, O'Reilly's calls for boycotts against Canada and France, which many thought brushed close to a casus belli; his recommendation that the government should not respond if San Francisco was attacked by terrorists; and his announcement that 87 percent of Jon Stewart's viewership was intoxicated.
The worst uproar centered around the still-unclear sexual harassment case brought by Andrea Makris, when O'Reilly allegedly confused "loofah" with "falafel" and offered to wash her private parts with a sandwich, but all of Kitman's efforts to straighten it out came to naught: nobody would talk. He ventures a guess as to what happened: Makris invited O'Reilly to be her guest for dinner, and he's such a tightwad that he couldn't resist. As for Makris, he predicts that she will be the next corpse in Those Who Trespass.
O'Reilly's claim to run a "no-spin zone" is, says Kitman, "a brilliant Orwellian conceit -- black is white; peace is war; entertainment is news -- since it is actually all spin. Watching the show is like being in a Laundromat with all the machines on spin cycle. The difference is, it's all O'Reilly's spin." He is, however, justified in his claims to be balanced because "he has a chip on both shoulders."
He sees O'Reilly as a non-conformist in a business that demands so much conformity that we ended up with "a generation of telegenic and totally uninvolved journalists." The cure, he believes, is not exactly more O'Reillys, but more journalistic idiosyncrasy, a quality he dubs "O'Reillyismo" and compares to the opinionated, often heretical ideas of Edward R. Murrow. Although the two men could not be more different in personality, Kitman contends that the quiet, urbane Murrow was just as angry as O'Reilly and just as ready to defy the powers that be, as when he criticized J. Edgar Hoover, Douglas MacArthur, Nationalist China, and the tobacco interests at a time when they were television's biggest advertisers and he himself was a heavy smoker. The comparison doesn't quite make it: Murrow was a classic down-the-line liberal and O'Reilly, though he occasionally deviates, is too much of a conservative ever to be allowed to share Murrow's demigod status. Liberals would have to acknowledge that O'Reilly's New Journalism is Murrow's Old Journalism, and as most of them lack Kitman's fairness, they would be loath to do so.
What does Kitman think the future holds for O'Reilly? His Achilles' heel is the "Wally Pipp syndrome," the fear of being replaced permanently as Yankees first baseman Pipp was replaced by Lou Gehrig for the next 2,130 games. Roger Ailes finally got him to stop coming into the office on his day off, but his sister worries about what a major illness would do to his need for total control.
Will he go into politics? Kitman: Only if he sees it his duty to Stop Hillary. Peter Jennings: No. You can lose, and Bill doesn't like to. Roger Ailes: Not if he had to spend any of his own money! But, Ailes added, he could retire and write, because "he doesn't have that fear of not being on TV that most celebrities have. Most of them, if not on for one day, feel there is somebody standing on their air hose. Bill doesn't have that. He could find fulfillment doing other things. He's as happy beating the crap out of an anonymous single person as an entire audience and guest. I mean, he can just joust his paperboy, and he'll feel fulfilled."
I'm serious about this book's arrangement. Do start with Chapter Sixteen and then go back and read the first part. This way, you will bring to Kitman's best writing the mental freshness it deserves. His description of the typical political guest -- "think-tank turret gunners who make the rounds of news shows, spinning their yarns" -- is perfect.