In a surprising twist that I can only describe in terms which are similar to “blood in an ER,” Bill O’Reilly’s career has died before the majority of his audience did. According to Gabriel Sherman at New York Magazine, the twenty-one-year veteran of the network is out the door: ”... network executives are preparing to announce O’Reilly’s departure before he returns from an Italian vacation on April 24.”
O’Reilly out! Think of it! It seems impossible. Wherever the low road went, there was O’Reilly. He was reliable, like a drunk in a ski lodge: you always knew that no matter how bad it got, how uncoordinated, he would find his way to the bottom. There was no pandering beyond him, no exception to decency and morality that he would not touch. As his shtick was picked up by wilder yahoos, he began to fade, but held on for dear life. The email chain letter that your aunt and uncle sent you about Obama funding madrassahs had a human face in O’Reilly.
The “No Spin Zone” was such a piece of obvious propaganda, it was hard to think the makers of the program didn’t have a vast, submerged sense of humor about their product. What other non-Nancy-Grace 21st century television show could have had segments with the titles like “Children at Risk,” “Fridays with Geraldo,” and “Is It Legal,” without a twinkle in the eye? No wonder Colbert sprang from those deep waters: someone had to pick up the torch of implied satire and run with it. It has been almost ten years now since O’Reilly claimed a Lesbian gang epidemic existed. We might now be toiling in the mines under this terrifying regime, if O’Reilly had never lived.
The man was in the business of making your grandparents afraid. How many Thanksgivings did he make unbearable by his existence? He was a hectoring comic relief character in a Paul Verhoeven movie. Remember the pasty-faced grotesque in Starship Troopers that yells “Brain Bugs?! Frankly, I find the idea of a Bug that thinks offensive!” That was Billo.
That’s what he chose to do with his life, when he wasn’t menacing women or saving Christmas. You have to give him credit: at some point, the man decided to be a huge pain in the ass to everyone, and lived his life, professional and private, according to that principle. He was a lunch-pail Andy Dick, but with less shame.
We do him a disservice by thinking of him as just as hectorer of unreadable books and fringe political theories. O’Reilly was a salesman of the blood royal. How many medical alert bracelets, quick-buck schemes, and yard equipment dynasties did he support, lifting them upon his back like Atlas? O’Reilly was the greatest boon to the late-night salesmen who ever lived. It was unnecessary to peddle their wares in Soldier of Fortune: they could do it on the O’Reilly Factor.
From its earliest days, as Rick Perlstein has shown, the right-wing media was deeply rooted in mail-order. To them, O’Reilly was the Pope. The prophet was always there to peddle the overpriced to the underinformed. How many hearing aids must a man sell in Iowa, before they call him a man? The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind.
It would be hard to deny Papa Bear had charm. I watched him debate Jon Stewart once, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t like him much more after he was finished. Small wonder that he climbed the ranks to the peak of fame and influence in America. The people who actively loathed O’Reilly assumed he had a Svengali-like appeal, as if the power to weave grievance on air was a thatched-hair musk that clung to him. They saw O’Reilly as a Piped Piper figure, who had an inexplicable power over the public: Rihanna, but for shouting.
But this is wrong. O’Reilly was not evil Cicero. He was an ordinary anchor with a talent for bad phone sex and dark mutterings. His prominence was not due any rhetorical genius on O’Reilly’s part. Rather, it’s that the majority of professionals in American politics are flimsy at their craft. It was natural that a blowhardy, soggy talking head could come in and pour loud, sugary words into the ear of the people.
As with Trump, O’Reilly was a political whale not because he was especially strong, but because everyone else was (relatively) so incompetent. Fox News hated him, but for years he hauled in huge treasure; they had no choice but to keep him in the family. Six sources who spoke to CNNMoney described O’Reilly as “mean and self-centered, and said he was widely disliked at the company.” Remember that these are people who find Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson likable in real life.
As glad as I am to see him go—very—I admit to a small degree of feeling, an emotion which might be a cousin to a friend who is a distant relative of bemused sadness. It’s like seeing your favorite crazy child-biting horse get put down with maximum force. The vile beast is a grotesque manifestation of the American id, but it is a living thing, of a sort. It was always going to come down to this, but it’s different when you see the final scene of nature’s strange pageant enacted before you.
He was right-wing, but of an older school. Would Alex Jones admit the existence of global warming, the necessity of gun control, and oppose the death penalty? All the old, first-class dragons are vanishing in a frenzied reaping. Buckley a few years ago—Schlafly, Scalia are gone now too. And now Bill’s lost his perch. This is the age of the new mutant—Infowars, Breitbart, and the offspring of Trump, rising under the freak radiation of the bloated Orange Sun. I will not miss him, and will celebrate his disappearance; but I will note his absence.