I think it goes without saying that Bill O’Reilly isn’t really dead. I titled this an “obituary” because, frankly, I just always expected O’Reilly to die on the job, which is not so much a comment on the proximity of his demise, but more of a reflection of my inability to see the man retire. He has been on air since what seems like the beginning of time — his stint at Fox News alone has spanned more than two decades. For better or worse, the man has become iconic, and it’s difficult to imagine him off the air. And, in a way, calling this an obituary is quite fitting, because O’Reilly’s life is so inexorably connected to the anchor’s desk he occupied every weekday. So, now that he has been fired from his show in disgrace over his decades-long habit of sexual harassment, his absence from that desk and the air makes it seem almost like he has indeed passed away.
I confess, I’ve had a minor obsession with the conservative commentator sarcastically nicknamed “Papa Bear” by Stephen Colbert, by which I mean (1) I sometimes do a really bad impression of O’Reilly engaging in either mansplaining or homophobia and (2) I watch O’Reilly’s show occasionally — not every day, and usually not the whole show, but definitely more than a young left-winger is expected to (if you didn’t already assume intuitively as much, the average age of O’Reilly’s audience is a youthful 72). For the most part, it’s an intentionally masochistic/self-flagellating/self-abusive experience because, well, to put it bluntly, his show is terrible. But, there are also particular gems one gets from time to time:
“Tide goes in, tide goes out. You can’t explain that.” (Yeah, we can — what we can’t explain is what you were doing skipping science class in sixth grade.)
“I couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’s restaurant [in Harlem] and any other restaurant in New York City … even though it’s run by blacks, primarily black patronship … There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, ‘M-Fer, I want more iced tea.‘” (No comment.)
“In certain ghetto neighborhoods, it’s part of the culture — 9-year-old boys and girls are smoking [pot].” (Judging by the previous comment, I’m just going to go out on a limb here and say that O’Reilly knows absolutely nothing about the “ghetto.”)
I could go on for quite a while with these. And these are indeed quite funny — that is, if you manage to forget the fact that the man and his god-awful show actually had influence over politics and public policy in this country. And that brings up a point I think a lot of people on the left are hesitant to concede: Bill O’Reilly is, at the end of the day, a fairly smart individual.
It is, of course, easier to call O’Reilly a racist, an ignoramus, a sex offender or a combination of the three, especially given what we know. But I think that also misses an aspect of O’Reilly that is fairly important. People’s traits, negative or positive, do not exist in a vacuum; they come from somewhere, and in O’Reilly’s case, they come from a very real and historical place that would be remiss for us to ignore. He isn’t just a serial sexual harasser, he is also an embodiment of the so-called “Mad Men” era, during which that kind of behavior was okay. He isn’t just a racist, he is also an embodiment of an era when it was okay to, for example, call a black woman “hot chocolate.” Now, all of those things are terrible, but they sound like things any stereotypical racist great-uncle might say on Thanksgiving, really nothing special. But that great-uncle of yours can only give you his piece once a year, while Bill O’Reilly did it for an hour a day for five days a week, and made his show the top-rated cable news show in America for 15 straight years. And, whereas your great-uncle is rambling about in a drunken rant, O’Reilly has taken his material, crudely offensive in its raw form, and packaged it into something that is legitimate enough to be accepted as serious political commentary. That is both the brilliance and danger of Bill O’Reilly: not only is he a practitioner of horrible things, he is also a missionary for those same things. When he goes on air, he is not just speaking for himself, he is also speaking for an audience who think like him and who can feel safe in their bigotry, misogyny or ignorance, knowing that there is someone in a supposed position of authority and legitimacy who will affirm all of the beliefs that the outside world has deemed unacceptable. While others gave voice to the voiceless, he gave voice to the despicable. Now, at least, he himself will finally suffer some consequences for his own despicable actions.
And so, with that, we are at the end of an era. Bill O’Reilly has gone. And, I thought it’ll be fitting to end here by quoting Papa Bear what I only hope to be one last time:
Yes, Bill, yes.
Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu.