O’Reilly’s Story Without the Spin

November 19, 2008

Irish American Fox News star Bill O’Reilly’s opinions often divide the American public, but no one can deny he’s captured our attention. This year he signed a multi-million dollar contract with Fox to bring his cable news program The O’Reilly Factor to the public for the next four years. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talked to Mr. No Spin about his new book and the Long Island town that shaped him.

IF you do the math you’ll figure out that Bill O’Reilly, 59, makes at least a million dollars a month. Recently he renewed his contract with Fox News for between $10 and 12 million a year, but that’s just the start. Add to that his stable of best-selling books, his radio show and his glossy website (care for a “No Spin” sweatshirt or a “Wise Up” mug?), and it all adds up to an impressive amount of scratch.

Not bad work for a working class Irish Catholic kid from blue collar Levittown in Long Island. To give O’Reilly his due, for most of his life he’s had to blaze his own trail alone – not many kids from Levittown went on to study at Harvard; few even entertained the notion.

So it’s appropriate to wonder what has motivated his rise, what inner strength drives the man that MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann regularly calls “The Worst Person in the World” toward ever more remarkable achievements? After all, O’Reilly has grilled four American presidents to date, a feat even his own father would have thought unimaginable, so how do you top that?

Year after year O’Reilly’s nightly show on Fox, The O’Reilly Factor, has been the highest rated cable news program in the country. Whatever talents and skills have helped him to carve out such an extraordinary career, they clearly haven’t abandoned him yet.

bill-oreilly-memoir.jpgIn his new bestselling book A Bold, Fresh Piece of Humanity — which could be accurately described as both a memoir and a self-help primer — O’Reilly reflects on the life experiences that have made him who he is, and along the way he shares some vivid life lessons, too. The book’s title quotes a nun at St. Brigid’s School in Westbury, who took one look at him and called it like she saw it.

“The new book is a summation of why I think what I think,” O’Reilly told the Irish Voice during a recent interview. “People know what my opinions are, but they don’t know how they were formed. So I decided to write this book to fill them in on my background, what I’ve done in my life, and how all of my experiences have shaped what I say on radio.”

In his new book O’Reilly’s often his own hero as he battles the conmen, evil-doers and pinheads despoiling America. He’s fought against them all his life. He’s being doing it all alone for so long that it’s become a second nature. It’s that fight that keeps him going.

“I’m a quintessential working class Irish American Catholic, I think that’s fair to say. My people were Kennedys, McLaughlins and O’Reillys, and because I had that strain going back 80 or 90 years since my people came over, those lessons I was taught as a child made a tremendous impression on me, and that’s why I am the way I am today.”

By now most people have already formed their own opinions about O’Reilly — he knows that – and he knows he divides the American public along sharply political lines. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center taken just after the election, he led both the “favorite campaign journalist” and “least favorite campaign journalist” lists. (O’Reilly likes to cite the Pew organization to claim that his viewers are well informed and educated).

In the new book O’Reilly throws light on one of the most illuminating themes of his life — how the bitter class struggles (sometimes all-out brawls) of his adolescence helped shape his perspective early on. A poor kid from Levittown, O’Reilly’s father sent him to school with the blue-blazered swells of Chaminade High School in Mineola. Right from the beginning O’Reilly was fighting his corner.

“My parents didn’t even know anyone who was wealthy. We never saw them around my neighborhood. They whizzed by in their Cadillacs,” he recalls.

“I had two sports jackets and the other kids there had 10, and they were wearing cashmere and I was wearing Modell’s. So they would try to push you around because they were rich and you weren’t, and I didn’t really brook that. I fought back. It kind of shaped my thinking.”

Last year O’Reilly gave more money to charity than his father made in his whole life (he worked for 40 years).

“How would my father process my success and what I’m making these days? I don’t know. “I think he would have liked the show, though, the good we do.”

But is The O’Reilly Factor’s coverage fair and balanced, as he claims, or is it biased and belligerent, as his critics contend? Some say his relentless focus on hot topic issues comes at the expense of all the others. Others wonder why he always sets himself in opposition to something, a debater’s tactic, rather than just spell out what he stands for himself?

The culture war is certainly entertaining, but doesn’t it distract from the nations real ills? Would that explain why there’s occasionally a glaring disconnect between the opinions of Fox News viewers and the majority of the nation — O’Reilly viewers recently predicted that John McCain would win over Barack Obama by 68% to 32%, for example.

There’s no question that a lot of O’Reilly’s popularity — and all of his credibility — comes from his decision to remain close all his life to the values and attitudes of Levittown. But how can a guy who makes millions really claim to be standing up for the little guy?

For O’Reilly the answer is easy. He didn’t reject his upbringing, and he goes to Mass every Sunday.

“Levittown is still conservative,” he says. “I’m sure McCain carried it. But it’s not a kneejerk place like it was back then. You didn’t want to be a hippy back then – that wasn’t happening. Now it’s much more diverse.

“Whenever you get people in a working class environment you get people who have a tremendous loyalty to their country, who are opposed to dramatic change. They don’t want it, they don’t know why it’s necessary. They have a strong loyalty to tradition. That’s still there.”

Asked if had had carefully planned out his meteoric rise, O’Reilly laughs.

“I never saw it that way. I never had a map. I went from what I thought would be interesting and fun and adventurous. I didn’t have an endgame like a lot of the kids have today,” he says.

“Money was secondary to me, I didn’t get married till late in life, I didn’t have kids to support. For me it was about seeing some interesting things and finding what was at the end of the rainbow.”

Asked what he wants people to know about his new book he replies, “It’s an enjoyable read that people will learn a lot from and have a few laughs. I mean, what more do you want for your $20 bucks?”

A Bold, Fresh Piece of Humanity is now available from Broadway Books.

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