You’ve probably seen this guy, Bill O’Reilly. He hosts a show on the Fox News Channel, The O’Reilly Factor. He’s a tall, blue-eyed fellow, and he likes to stir things up. Argues a lot, cuts off his guests. His audience eats it up. A lot of people love Bill O’Reilly, you see. Then again, a lot of people would like to punch Bill O’Reilly in the nose.
The joke’s on them, though. Mr. O’Reilly feasts on love-hate feelings and controversy, and right now, his career is hot. The O’Reilly Factor has the fastest-growing audience for a cable television news talk show. Mr. O’Reilly is the most popular person on the Fox News Channel. That used to be like saying you were the most popular person in your own bathtub, but not anymore. Mr. O’Reilly even beats Larry King in the ratings a couple of times a week. “He has the ability to be the king of this genre, if he handles his own success path well,” said Fox News Channel chairman Roger Ailes.
But Mr. O’Reilly may set his sights on even bigger goals. If Hillary Rodham Clinton gets elected to the Senate this November, he told The Observer, he’d consider running against her in 2006, if he were called upon. “If there is no candidate for the job, I might step up,” he said.
The potential Senatorial candidate also has a new book. It has a long title: The O’Reilly Factor: The Good, The Bad, and the Completely Ridiculous in American Life. The book offers Mr. O’Reilly’s opinions on everyone and everything from the Hardy Boys (good) to President Clinton (ridiculous) to Jesse Helms (bad) to onion-flavored potato chips (also bad).
Mr. O’Reilly really hates those onion-flavored potato chips. “They’ve got to be the worst thing in American society,” he said on a recent afternoon. “Why are we eating those things? They’re offensive to my stomach, they’re offensive to everybody around me. Let’s get rid of them!”
People value these opinions. You may be surprised to learn that Mr. O’Reilly’s new book will be No. 2 on the Oct. 8 New York Times best-seller list. You can’t even get The O’Reilly Factor book in Westchester County, Mr. O’Reilly said–it’s sold out. On Tuesday, Oct. 3, his book was No. 1 on Amazon.com.
What all of this means is that Bill O’Reilly, this brash New York guy with a brash show and a brash book, is becoming a huge media star, to the point where he thinks about running for elected office. This, despite the fact that Mr. O’Reilly ticks people off, and a lot of fancy people, like Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, won’t go near his show. This, despite the fact that Mr. O’Reilly can’t get himself on Oprah, Today, Good Morning America or a host of other television programs to plug his book. This, despite the fact that some TV pundits despise Mr. O’Reilly and his show. Tom Shales of The Washington Post once described The O’Reilly Factor as “worthless.”
Mr. O’Reilly doesn’t really care what his critics say. “They can attack me, they can attack me, and they have been attacking me,” he said, “and it ain’t going to stop the train.”
So choo-choo–all aboard. It was late on a Thursday afternoon when Mr. O’Reilly sat with NYTV in his corner office at the News Corporation headquarters in midtown. A North Pole–sized pile of viewer mail was stacked on his couch. On the wall was a photograph of Mr. O’Reilly and Gerald Ford. Mr. O’Reilly had a lot more hair in the photograph than he does now. There was also a framed TV Guide article on the wall with the headline, “FUTURE NEWS SUPERSTARS.” The article was from 1983. Underneath his desk was a green doormat with Hillary Clinton’s face on it. “I’ve Always Been a Yankee Fan,” the doormat read.
Mr. O’Reilly fussed at his desk. “My life is so hectic, it’s ridiculous,” he said.
Mr. O’Reilly is a big guy. A lot of people on TV are really small, but he is not. He is 6 feet 4 inches. He is 50 years old, with a firm chin and gray hair on his temples. He looks to be in good shape. He is not chubby. Mr. O’Reilly said he still plays touch football on the weekends with some old high-school buddies. That’s about as much as he wanted to talk about his personal life. “I can’t talk about my personal life,” he said, “because of security reasons.” He didn’t elaborate.
But Mr. O’Reilly will talk about his professional life. Yes, sir. And it’s clear that he is a pretty, well, confident about himself and his show. “There is something about the presentation that we bring to the Factor that has struck a chord in America,” he said. He said he wanted to bring a “powerful voice” to this country. He also said he wanted The O’Reilly Factor to present “things that are not presented in the elite media.” In the Factor, he said, “I’ve got that forum.”
The O’Reilly Factor almost always has the same basic format every night: First, Mr. O’Reilly opens up the show by telling everyone what he thinks about something. This part is called “Talking Points.” Then Mr. O’Reilly and his guests go mano a mano. Mr. O’Reilly does not host a cocktail party. Factor segments are more debates than interviews. Mr. O’Reilly is aggressive, and he will interrupt his guests. Often, he interrupts to give his own opinions. He likes to talk a lot.
Mr. O’Reilly’s viewers think he is a tough host. But Mr. O’Reilly said he tries not to be ruthless. He said he won’t purposely try to humiliate a guest, especially if they are struggling. “I’m not going to embarrass anybody, but there have been times when people have been on the program, that they were obviously intellectually overmatched,” he said.
People have a hard time figuring out Mr. O’Reilly’s politics. A lot of people think he’s a conservative, and these people haven’t even seen the Hillary Clinton doormat under his desk. Technically, he’s a registered Independent. But he’s also pro–gun control. He’s against the death penalty. He believes in global warming. He’s even for legalizing marijuana. “I would decriminalize marijuana, but you step out of your house high and you bother somebody else in any way, shape or form, I’m going to slap a fine on you that’s going to curl your hair!”
Clearly, Mr. O’Reilly is not everybody’s cup of tea. But people seem to like watching him even if they don’t agree with him, because he gets them riled up.
“He has an eclectic positioning,” Mr. Ailes said of Mr. O’Reilly. “We’ve had the same number of liberals screaming at us as we’ve had conservatives screaming at us, and Republicans and Democrats and independents and everybody else. Bill has a sort of universal way of pissing people off.”
So how did Mr. O’Reilly get to where he is? Here’s a short version of the story: He grew up in Levittown, Long Island, the son of an accountant, went to high school, went to Marist, got a master’s degree at Boston University, went into local TV in Boston, went into national TV at CBS and ABC, went into tabloid TV (he hosted the syndicated program Inside Edition), left, attended a mid-career graduate program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and finally landed at the fledging Fox.
He also wrote a novel called Those Who Trespass, which is about a bitter former newsman who goes around killing his former rivals. Here is a scene from Those Who Trespass: “His hands firmly gripped her buttocks. Ashley could feel his rhythm. First quick, then slow, then quick again. He brought her right up to orgasm, then pulled back.”
In the TV news business, Mr. O’Reilly grew to be known as something of a troublemaker. Mr. O’Reilly is not ashamed of talking about this. As a young newsman, he didn’t bite his tongue, he freely offered his opinions and he ran into trouble. He said he once told Morley Safer, “There’s a line here, sir,” when the veteran 60 Minutes newsman cut him in the CBS cafeteria. No one really says that kind of thing to Morley Safer. “A lot of people found him intolerable,” recalled a former colleague of Mr. O’Reilly’s from Boston, Emily Rooney. It should be pointed out that Ms. Rooney really likes Mr. O’Reilly.
You might say that, more than anything else, Mr. O’Reilly is driven by the issue of socio-economic class. He talks about class a lot. Ms. Rooney said he used to talk about it years ago, back in Boston. Mr. O’Reilly often tells people he grew up with nothing, in a working-class family, and he understands the little guy. His dad never made more than $35,000 a year, he wrote in his book. “You don’t come from any lower than I came from on an economic scale,” he said. “I fully realize that blacks in the ghetto, and all that, had a much rougher life than I had. But I started from ground zero. When I got out of B.U., I had not a nickel.” Well, he probably had a nickel, but you get the point.
But Mr. O’Reilly said he is not interested in fame and wealth. He doesn’t want to join the media elite. He doesn’t want to go to fancy parties with Vladimir Putin at “21.” He just likes to work, he said. “I drive in here in my 1994 automobile and I come up and I do this show,” he said. Mr. O’Reilly was asked what kind of 1994 automobile he had. “A Lexus,” he said. “But you know, it’s a 1994–it’s got some dings in it.”
Mr. O’Reilly is obviously pleased that The O’Reilly Factor is hot on the heels of Larry King Live. The shows really couldn’t be more different, though. Mr. O’Reilly didn’t say this, but Larry King has a reputation of being–well, you know, a softy. The only thing soft about Mr. O’Reilly are his Arnold Brant suits. But Mr. O’Reilly said he respects his chief competitor. He’d sure like to have some of his guests. “I do believe that they [guests] think it’s a more prestigious vessel to go on Larry King than The O’Reilly Factor,” he said. “I’ve got to change that.”
Getting guests can be bit of a problem for Mr. O’Reilly. Like, not getting Al Gore kind of stinks. But Mr. Ailes sees it differently. “I say the [guests] who do Bill O’Reilly are intelligent, sure of their positions and fearless,” the Fox News boss said. “Now if they are wimps, promoters, cowards, salesmen or bullshit artists, they probably won’t do the show. In the end, that may eliminate some, but the guests that do come on will be good, and the television will be good.”
Mr. Ailes said he was happy for Mr. O’Reilly’s success. But he didn’t want to label Mr. O’Reilly the “face” of the Fox News Channel. “To be honest with you, as the face of Fox News, I’d rather have Paula Zahn’s, because she just has a better face,” Mr. Ailes said. “I like O’Reilly’s face, but Paula Zahn’s face is outstanding.” He was kidding around.
So for now, Mr. O’Reilly sails along with his hot TV show and his best-selling book. He is really proud of that book. “I think it’s an important book,” he said. Mr. O’Reilly said the book is important because it lays out what the “system” is. He said he wished he had a book like The O’Reilly Factor: The Good, the Bad and the Ridiculous in American Life when he was a kid. In addition to stuff about politics, class and race, the book also offers some tips on dating. Mr. O’Reilly, who is married now with a baby daughter, used to date a lot. The book also has some teenage grooming tips. “They should be instructed in the use of deodorants, shaving products, and cleansing agents,” he writes. The book also has a list of Mr. O’Reilly’s favorite movies. He liked Saturday Night Fever.
It was getting late, and Mr. O’Reilly had to go meet a friend and go to dinner. They were going to the Harvard Club. Mr. O’Reilly got his friend at his office and they rode the elevator down to the lobby. They exited through the revolving doors. It was dark outside, and the air was chilly and crisp. Before saying goodnight, Mr. O’Reilly said he had an idea for another book. “This one is going to be really big,” he said. But he wouldn’t say anything more, at least not for the time being.