Independents and Republicans are free to vote in next Tuesday’s Indiana Democratic primary – the latest do-or-die test for Hillary Clinton. And Independents and Republicans – along with a healthy dose of Archie Bunker Democrats and a scattering of masochistic liberals – also constitute the core of Bill O’Reilly audience. So, in a way, her appearance on his show Wednesday night was a logical exercise in voter outreach.
But that’s only if you ignore history. O’Reilly, whose Fox News program debuted (in a different time slot and with precious few viewers) way back in 1996, has spent the better part of the last decade telling his flock that Clinton and her husband are to be considered ideological and cultural enemies. And Clinton, the woman who defiantly lashed out against “a vast right-wing conspiracy” in 1998, mostly embraced that hostility, knowing that it only made her – and her husband – more popular within her own party.
And yet there she was on Wednesday, sitting down with the self-proclaimed “culture warrior” for a hastily arranged and wide-ranging interview that was taped in South Bend earlier in the day. O’Reilly’s introduction to the interview, which will air over two nights, pretty much explained the Clinton campaign’s rationale: The campaign, he said, contacted his staff on Monday morning with word that – after years of shunning him – she’d be happy to carve out an hour for him on Wednesday morning. Thus it was Clinton herself who sought a spot in “the no spin zone.”
The reason can be spelled out in two words: Reverend Wright.
O’Reilly called him “a loon” several times tonight and for months, along with other Fox News hosts, has feverishly highlighted the retired minister’s most inflammatory words, elevating Wright – and, by extension, Obama – onto a level of cultural enemy-hood in the O’Reilly universe that even the Clintons never approached. The Clinton campaign, remember, called O’Reilly on Monday, just as Wright was forcing his way onto the front page of every newspaper in the country.
If there was any doubt over the very specific purpose of Clinton’s visit, she erased it right away.
“Do you believe this Reverend Wright guy?” O’Reilly asked.
“I’m going to leave it up to the voters to decide,” Clinton replied.
Wright isn’t on the ballot. But her point was clear enough.
She went on: “I take offense at [Wright’s words]. I think it’s offensive and outrageous…it is part of just an atmosphere that we’re in today, where just all kinds of things are being said and people have to decide what they believe. And I sure don’t believe the U.S. government was behind AIDS.”
This went farther than Clinton has previously ventured. Weeks ago, she went out of her way to make clear that she would not have been a member of Wright’s church, but she mostly left Obama to sort out his own mess. That she picked O’Reilly’s forum to broadcast the explicit suggestion that voters should use Wright’s words to judge Obama speaks volumes.
After Clinton took a few more shots at Wright, O’Reilly expressed some backhanded sympathy for Obama, asserting that “his whole campaign has been derailed by some loony guy” and asked Clinton if she, too, felt sorry for her foe. Not surprisingly, she didn’t answer. At this point, O’Reilly was doing her work for her.
Of course, Clinton paid a price for going on, too. Having accomplished what she wanted to with the Wright question, she then had to deal with all manner of scattershot and self-absorbed questions from O’Reilly. He asked her if she was aware that she would “bankrupt the country with HillCare” and informed her that her plan would force him to pay for health care for “someone who’s taking heroin and drinking a bottle of gin a day.” He also demanded to know the details of his own personal tax bill under a Clinton presidency.
On these topics, the old battle lines that made O’Reilly and Clinton natural enemies for years were clear. Clinton defended herself spiritedly, bantering playfully with her inquisitor and even working sly praise for Ronald Reagan into one of her responses.
But this was all secondary. The purpose of Clinton’s visit wasn’t to win over O’Reilly on health care or taxes or energy policy. Her goal is merely to make sure that O’Reilly’s audience – which doesn’t have a Republican primary to vote in these days – feels like she’s like them in a way that Obama isn’t.
It’s funny what a common enemy can do to even the most entrenched antagonists.