The Sound, Fury, and Contradictions of Bill O'Reilly

The O'Reilly Factor by Bill O'Reilly Broadway Books New York: Broadway, 2000. Pp. 1, 214.

Bill O'Reilly can be one of the most irritating people in the world. A good example was in late December 1999 when at the end of his nightly show on the Fox News Channel, The O'Reilly Factor, he decided to commemorate the approach of the year 2000 by naming Franklin Delano Roosevelt "Man of the Century." Time magazine had considered it, but somewhat more wisely chose Albert Einstein instead. O'Reilly should have been brighter than the editors of Time. What gave? It turns out, nothing.

After the broadcast I e-mailed him and to my great surprise the next night (December 29, 1999) he read a portion of my letter on the air:

"Your selection of FDR as u2018Hero of the Century' was astoundingly ignorant and misguided. FDR did NOT save the nation from the Great Depression. The number of workers unemployed when he was elected in Nov. 1932 was 11.4 million. The number unemployed in May 1938 (after $17 billion of failed government spending) was 11.8 million."

I wrote more of course, mentioning the havoc Social Security will visit on today's young generation and FDR's internment of 100,000 Japanese Americans, but that's all O'Reilly saw fit to air. O'Reilly replied that my view was "narrow" and then asserted that FDR brought "calm" to the country after the stock market crash, "took the country off of the gold standard," and showed leadership in steering the country through the Great Depression. Even if those achievements were true – except for the claim about the gold standard, they're nostalgic fantasy – I'm still puzzled as to how FDR, the man who appointed an ex-Klansman to the Supreme Court and imprisoned 100,000 Japanese Americans from 1942-45, can be given a hero's status by anyone.

This is the problem with O'Reilly. If you're looking for a consistent political philosophy from him, you're not going to get it from his show or this book by the same name. But like his show, what you will get from his book are many poignant observations and an entertaining read.

The first third of the book is concerned with the socioeconomic factors (no pun intended) that O'Reilly believes are central to an individual's life in 21st-Century America. The next fifth of the book is comprised of O'Reilly's views of, and advice on, relationships with friends and family members. The last half of the book constitutes O'Reilly's thoughts on various social and cultural phenomena as well as his lists of the "Good, Bad, and Ridiculous" things and people in American culture, past and present.

The book's target audience is unquestionably people who are familiar with O'Reilly's show on Fox. Each chapter is divided into subdivisions that match those used on his TV show: "Ridiculous Note," "Talking Point," "Viewer Time-Out," "Bulletin," and "This Just In." Paragraphs constituting different trains of thought inside these subdivisions are separated with a small TV icon. So many subdivisions are superfluous and become annoying after a while. Books and television shows are different media and conventions effective on TV aren't necessarily effective, or even appropriate in books. Even so, O'Reilly's material is still interesting and the big plus is that it isn't another regurgitation of material already covered on his show. This was the eminent flaw of Rush Limbaugh's first book outing, The Way Things Ought to Be, a tome filled with material already worn to pieces on his radio show.

In the first six chapters Mr. No Spin Zone spins his theory of the socioeconomic structure of American life. What emerges is not novel, just pedestrian populism. O'Reilly's Fox-slogan effort to be "fair and balanced" carries over to his book. He's not a conservative, liberal, or libertarian because he believes that "the truth doesn't have labels." (So how can O'Reilly's worldview then be designated as "truth?"). Thus O'Reilly immediately runs afoul of the Veblenian contradiction: denigrating taxonomy only to build his socioeconomic theory around a very simplistic one.

O'Reilly tells us that it is "essential that we all look at American life the way it really is today. If we don't…we're gonna lose the battles to the frauds, fools, and thieves…" Ironic in that he next asserts that the central unfairness of American society stems from its rigid class structure. He then makes the eyebrow-raising claim that "[p]oliticians don't usually talk about class." (One wonders where O'Reilly was on Super Tuesday 1992 when Bill Clinton, with a black infant cradled in his arms, walked the streets of New Orleans promising to get even with "the rich who didn't pay their fair share in the 1980s." This is the same man who just pardoned an international fugitive who owed Uncle Sam more than $40 million in taxes.)

The effort to bury class importance – at least to O'Reilly – is huge: not only involving politicians but advertisers and the rich themselves. Being quite hyperbolic, O'Reilly writes that class "is the bottom line, in a way, for every problem I talk about in this book." Then, in his annoyingly persistent attempt to be "fair and balanced," he follows this subtle egalitarian cheerleading with the surprising inference that elite attitudes are the source of "unfair tax laws, government indifference about our terrible drug problem, or what kind of entertainment" Hollywood puts out. He adds that elite attitudes also contribute to lax enforcement of drunk-driving laws and more gun controls which punish law-abiding citizens. True, but these are hardly ever conclusions reached by almost all social analysts who believe with O'Reilly that class is "the bottom line" of most of America's problems. You can almost hear the Brookings Bolsheviks hissing. Their tack is to emphasize class differences in order to argue for wealth redistribution, something O'Reilly largely opposes along with the current tax burden which he deems oppressive. But he strangely emphasizes class differences as a eminent problem of American life and offers no solution. This begs the question of whether class differences are really as problematic as O'Reilly claims they are. O'Reilly doesn't like the fact that while he was a student at Marist College, women wanted to date men from Princeton and Cornell. O'Reilly's childhood friends still live in Levittown, NY where he grew up. He wonders how many of them would have been much happier to go to elite schools such as Harvard and Yale and become physicians and architects.

O'Reilly, The Great Contradicter, can of course be counted on to undercut his own thesis. He discusses Jacqueline Kennedy's thrill at discovering S&H green stamps from a White House employee and buying items left and right to get the stamps in order to trade them for "free" goods. He also mentions Sean "Puffy" Combs who hosts parties at his Hamptons home for the likes of Martha Stewart. "Puffy," you'll recall, was recently indicted on charges stemming from a nightclub shooting. Last of all O'Reilly, Mr. Working Class from Levittown, discusses his own stint at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government where he undertook postgraduate study. If class structure is really so rigid, how did Mr. Levittown get to Harvard? Or has O'Reilly become a member of that elite he now denounces?

O'Reilly mentions that many of his Harvard acquaintances were nice and well intentioned. In fact, many were studying politics to help others, but they were "generally clueless about the lives…of working-class Americans." This would be a great theme to develop: the dangers of single, young, clueless ivy-league wonks making social policy for a world with which they never interact. But alas, O'Reilly isn't the one to make it, leaving many crucial stones unturned throughout his book.

O'Reilly can hit the nail on the head, but it is brief and incidental. He points out that federal, state, and local governments are part of the American system that fight to keep Americans' hard-earned money away from them. He points out the absurdity of a man he saw on the Phil Donahue Show some years ago demanding that taxpayers not pay for wasteful programs but that the government pay for it instead. "Have we got a problem in communication here?" O'Reilly asks.

O'Reilly's prescriptions on sex are thoroughly modern and in strong contradiction to his strict Catholic upbringing. One of the book's surprises is the revelation that he is definitely no social conservative, as most viewers of his TV show might falsely conclude. Abstinence is "intrustive and ridiculous…Use protection. Make dead sure that no one else is going to be hurt by this encounter. Respect your partner before and after." How nice. Sounds just like Planned Parenthood. He also has a message for "religious fanatics" (read: genuine Catholics, unlike himself): Scripture is not a reliable guide to sexual morality because it condones slavery. Huh? I've never understood the basis of this bizarrely prevalent view. How anyone could read 1 Cor 7:21 or understand the context of the book of Philemon and conclude that the Bible endorses slavery is beyond me.

O'Reilly observes that "anyone who wants to buy illegal drugs can find them, as the authorities freely admit." He points out that getting drunk or high is a cheap fix for dealing with the challenges of life, hence it's especially attractive. Having unknowingly undermined the case for restrictions on both supply and demand, he then proceeds to support the War or Drugs with the same old specious arguments peddled by Rush Limbaugh. Abusers hurt other people. He backs this up with a "child abuse agency" statistic which claims that 75% of all physical abuse against children is committed by drunken adults. Also, unwanted pregnancies occur and STDs are spread when people are too drunk to remember to use protection. O'Reilly claims that legalization failed in "Needle Park" in Zurich, Switzerland. Last of all, the law is a moral instructor. If drugs are legal, that sends the message that drug use is okay.

Disregarding the surely-cooked 75% figure, the rise in unwanted pregnancies and the spread of STDs correlate not so much to do with alcohol (re-legalized since 1933) as they do with the beginning of the Sexual Revolution and the introduction of "morally neutral" sex-ed programs in the public schools. The perennial "Needle Park" argument is full of holes as to be laughable. Imagine drugs being legalized tomorrow, but only in Peoria, Illinois; Peoria becomes the only legal oasis of hard-drug consumption in North America. It's easy to imagine how the town would be quickly overrun with the worst druggies from all over the North American continent. The same thing happened in "Needle Park" with respect to Europe. As for the law being a moral instructor, the effectiveness of laws hinges crucially on the strength of a society's moral consensus. When the law has to be used to reinforce morality (as opposed to vice versa), society is in trouble – and ours indeed is.

O'Reilly's magic bullet to the drug problem? Prison rehab. Since the percentage of addicts has remained stable over the previous decade, huge inroads could be made by seizing these people in all 50 states and committing them to forced rehab for at least a year. This would also do tremendous financial damage to drug suppliers. Here's O'Reilly's dandy proposal for just cokers: "Some 7 million Americans buy a total of 331 tons of cocaine each year…[t]ake half of these users off the streets and place them in forced rehab, and the U.S. coke market would collapse. You can count on it."

O'Reilly's empirical basis for believing his plan would work comes from a program in Alabama. Arrestees are drug tested. If the offender is convicted, he/she has two choices in terms of prison sentence: a shorter sentence in prison rehab or a lengthier one among the general prison population. Unsurprisingly, more than 90% of convicted offenders choose rehab. Those who have served their time and are released have to still submit to years of drug testing. If they refuse or test positive, they go back to prison.

As an Alabamian, I'm puzzled as to what O'Reilly sees in this program. O'Reilly glows that of the 5,000 enrollees, twice as many stay off drugs after release than those who choose the normal prison route. But the sample size is too small from which to draw any firm and lasting conclusions. Novice users can be weened much more easily than seasoned veterans like the Robert Downey Jrs. The statistics don't contain these breakdowns. Drug tests remain beatable, as workers submit their children's urine for tests.

Even if the figures are accurate, they hardly mean anything – the inference that a national program would produce the same results is the classic fallacy of composition. Alabama is a mostly rural state with a relatively undiverse and small population. As the policy is nationalized, the system is confronted with hundreds of thousands of harder cases who are intent on gaming the system. Given that drugs have been impossible to keep out of ordinary prisons, how would they be kept out of prison rehabs? These questions don't even begin to broach the outrageous infringement of civil liberties this Maoist policy portends.

O'Reilly admits to having no solution with regard to alcohol. Here it becomes obvious to the more careful reader that his analysis heretofore is guilty of conflating what he truly believes are very different issues. (The 75% child abuse stat he used earlier dealt with alcoholic intoxication, not highs or lows produced by other drugs. He also forgets that Alabama's program is aimed at alcohol as well as drugs.) Running aground of tautology, he says that alcoholism is a different problem because you can't force people into treatment that weans them away from a legal product. "[A]lcoholics can emotionally damage their families and drink themselves to death, but society can do nothing but watch, unless there's physical abuse or drunk driving." Since the adverse effects of drug abuse on innocent bystanders are his rationalization for the drug war, why isn't the collateral damage caused by alcohol abuse a reason to return to alcohol prohibition? O'Reilly claims that the vast majority of Americans are able to use alcohol without abusing it. Maybe so, but the reality of collateral damage doesn't disappear one iota even if it occurs among a minority of alcohol abusers (who in total undoubtedly outnumber other drug abusers). Adultery entails collateral damage as well: assault and battery, bitter divorce and custody battles, out-of-wedlock children (Waz up, Jesse J.?), and jealous homicides. Why not jail adulterers and force them into rehab at the Jimmy Swaggart Ranch? Don't tell me adultery is that different. Many people can handle it "without abusing it" (unwanted pregnancies, their spouse finding out). A deservedly former in-law of mine carried on a 9-year affair with his secretary before he was discovered. Again, consistency is not something O'Reilly is very interested in, especially since it so effectively undermines his arguments.

Some other instances of questionable judgement/logic:

Abraham Lincoln: "A deeply kind human being, he showed his concern for everyday Americans while trying to lead this country through its greatest crisis so far." Boy, does this guy have a lot of real history to learn.

Religion: "It doesn't matter what you believe – as long as you believe in something." Of course O'Reilly doesn't believe this. He talks about getting the creeps during a visit to Victoria Falls in Zambia, where human sacrifices were regularly thrown into the falls to appease tribal gods. "I got out of there quick," says O'Reilly.

It might be tempting for some libertarians to write off O'Reilly as another statist blowhard. That would be a mistake since he is a very effective critic of the liberal press, both Clintons, Alan Greenspan, wasteful government spending, high taxation, and Jesse "Flim Flam" Jackson. He is almost alone in the media calling for an investigation of Jackson's finances and business organization. Statist lapses aside, he puts forth a lot of keen cultural observations that ring very true, such as those on:

Today's "experts:"

Relationship guru Barbara DeAngelis, who has made millions from her 8-book series and Cable TV infomercial Making Love Work, who is now "working" on her fifth marriage.

The ridiculous expectations today's women have of marriage:

"…a big house, late-model cars, and expensive "with-it" clothes, great sex between hard bodies, varied and healthful foods, separate space but mutual interests, stimulating conversation that helps each partner "grow," fun parties and swell vacations, exceptional children who can be bragged about on social occasions and at the office…" The source of this nonsense? Cosmopolitan, Glamour and other popular supermarket checkout rags that delude women into thinking that they can "have it all" and that every man who can't provide like a Kennedy is a loser.

The wasteland of Cable TV:

[On Nick at Night] Rhoda and Mary are mad at Lou because…Click…

VH-1 wants me to understand why onetime teen idol Leif Garrett is depressed these days. He must be watching cable. Click…

Lifetime has brought together a gaggle of women who all hate the fact that men alway…Click…

MSNBC, Fox, and CNN are all covering the same tornado in Texas. On all three channels the same fire chief is looking very grim. I sympathize but…Click…

Bill Kurtis [on A&E] is investigating some prisons where prisoners are not very happy. How does Bill find these stories? Have I lost my competitive edge? Click…

[Back to Nick at Night] Richie and the Fonz are mad at Chachi because …Click…

Garth Brooks…Click…

Racing cars…Click…

Fake wresting…Click…

Connie Stevens…Help!…

O'Reilly finishes out his book with his lists of the "Good, Bad, and Ridiculous" people and institutions of American life. O'Reilly's choices won't be much of a surprise to people who regularly watch his show, so I won't tediously enumerate them here. But O'Reilly has piqued me to name one of my own choices for each of these categories, and my choices don't overlap with O'Reilly's. Here they are:

The Good:

John Candy – an American treasure, this great funnyman and actor is almost forgotten just a few years after his death. Re-rent Planes, Trains, and Automobiles or Uncle Buck to re-experience this great.

The Bad:

Paul Krugman – Every profession has its prostitutes, and this man struts his stuff with the best of the Washington set. His recent New York Times "article" (really a collection of baseless claims) blaming the California power debacle on "deregulation" was an instant bonehead classic. Not the heir apparent to Galbraith (whose urbanity and wit the one-dimensional Krugman can only equal with the most vulgar arrogance) but just one more sign of the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of today's mainstream economics establishment.

The Ridiculous:

Laura Schlessinger – I still remember the phone call that put me on to this contemptible fraud. It was a young teenage boy who asked Dr. Whore-a if it was okay for him to put a poster of a bikini-clad woman on his wall. Whore-a denounced him as a sexist pig and hung up on him. A few days later she had this to say about Wesley Snipes: "These muscle-bound black men are just sooo hot." So much for her crusades against "objectification" and the evils of lust. The idiotic gay movement protested her TV show and caused many more people to watch it than would have otherwise. Even so, it still bombed and thankfully will soon be off the air.

If you're looking for a light, entertaining read O'Reilly's book is a good candidate. If you'd like to give him a good poke in the eye for his political inconsistencies, email him this review at [email protected]. Oh yeah, don't forget your "Name and town! Name and town!"

February 2, 2000

Dale Steinreich, PhD, is a consulting economist. He is also a regular contributor to