This article was originally published in May 2002.
Bill O’Reilly, lanky in a dark suit, his face covered with makeup, is elated, and not merely because of the most recent television ratings. Yes, they indicate that his show, The O’Reilly Factor, is rated number one among news programs on cable television. That means that he has successfully dethroned the King (as in Larry King), who has held the top spot for more than a decade. But today that’s just the gravy. The reason O’Reilly is nearly giddy with delight is that George Clooney has called him a liar. That’s the kind of thing that makes O’Reilly’s day. The man who is simultaneously the most revered and most loathed on television these days fires back, calling Clooney “a weasel.” There’s an unmistakable glint in his eyes. It gets better. Jim Carrey takes aim at O’Reilly, and the newsman responds, “Isn’t he the actor who made a movie called Dumb and Dumber? Well?” He shakes his head and smirks. “What do you expect from Clooney, Carrey and all those other idiotic Hollywood celebrities?” he asks. “They’re just a bunch of pinheads.”
The actors are up in arms about O’Reilly’s attack on them and other celebrities over the fund-raisers for the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Although it’s weeks later, O’Reilly has reported that the charities have distributed only a small fraction of the billion-plus dollars that were raised. After convincing people to donate, O’Reilly growls, the stars should be accountable and help correct the problem. Clooney, Carrey and others have declined to appear on the show to respond and instead have retaliated on the Late Show With David Letterman and the Today Show and in an open letter that was penned by Clooney. O’Reilly’s response? “George is gutless.”
This all makes for a typically fuming day for the man who has been called the most feared newsman since Mike Wallace and whose TV show is the most watched program on the Fox News Channel, the network that is taking on—and, in many markets, beating—CNN. The No Spin Zone, O’Reilly’s latest book, hit the number one spot on the best-seller lists and has sold almost a million copies—like its predecessor, The O’Reilly Factor. O’Reilly is everywhere—his column appears in some 200 newspapers, and now there’s talk of his getting a radio show. Mel Gibson optioned his novel, Those Who Trespass, for a movie.
O’Reilly’s success is coming in spite of—or perhaps because of—the fact that he irks so many people, and not merely Hollywood celebrities. Jim Wooten of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote, “He’s a made-for-television caricature who blows out bumper stickers.” He’s been called a “prick, blow-hard, gasbag and media führer” in GQ magazine. The Washington Post has said that he’s “worthless.” O’Reilly has even described himself as a “pain in the rear” and “a cocky bastard.”
O’Reilly has become a force to be reckoned with. After he railed against the charities, articles followed in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. The American Red Cross and United Way responded by releasing hundreds of millions of dollars to September 11 victims.
O’Reilly has maintained he isn’t partisan, although reporters discovered in December 2000 he was a registered Republican. Regardless, his views cross party lines. Unlike many Republicans, for example, he is against capital punishment, though not for the usual liberal reasons. His boss at Fox News, Roger Ailes, has said that for O’Reilly, capital punishment isn’t “cruel and unusual enough.” O’Reilly is for some forms of gun control and says the feds should step in when it comes to protecting the environment. He also believes that homosexuality is fine as long as gays and lesbians shut up about it. He hates welfare and says marijuana should be decriminalized.
Born in 1949, O’Reilly grew up on Long Island in Westbury, New York. Even this detail has become controversial. In his first book, O’Reilly said he is from Levittown, which is a lower-middle-class neighborhood. Writing in The Washington Post, Paul Farhi revealed that O’Reilly “practically fetishizes his working-class background,” but “actually grew up in Westbury, a middle-class suburb a few miles from Levittown.” Former Slate Editor Michael Kinsley accused O’Reilly of reverse snobbism. O’Reilly furiously defends himself, saying he lived in a house built by Levitt and his family bought only used cars and took buses for family vacations.
O’Reilly was obsessed with sports, not politics, and quarterbacked his high school team. He attended Marist College and spent his junior year abroad in London. He worked as a high school teacher and then enrolled in Boston University, where he got a master’s in broadcast journalism. That led to jobs as a reporter in Scranton, Dallas and other cities before he joined the New York CBS affiliate. He worked next at ABC before joining Inside Edition, which he wound up anchoring throughout the early Nineties, as well as reporting stories that ranged from profiles of Madonna and Michael Jackson to serious investigations of the selling of children in Thailand and a series on the Los Angeles riots. Next, he entered a one-year master’s program at Harvard, where he got a degree in public policy.
A year after O’Reilly married PR executive Maureen McPhilmy in 1995 (they have a daughter who just turned three), he accepted an offer to come to the Fox News Channel. He launched The O’Reilly Factor, which grew slowly, but found its viewership leaping with such stories as the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal and the 2000 presidential election. By the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks, O’Reilly was one of the most watched newsmen on TV We sent Contributing Editor David Sheff to the set of The O’Reilly Factor in New York City. Here’s Sheff’s report:
“On entering his office, which was piled high with mountains of junk, I scanned the floor for his infamous Hillary Clinton doormat that many journalists have commented on. It was gone, and when I asked him about it, O’Reilly said he donated it to a celebrity auction. ‘I hated to part with it, but it went for a small fortune,’ he said.
“O’Reilly writes his daily monolog and the show’s teasers himself and then heads down an elevator to attend the daily Factor story meeting. A dozen staffers sit around and thrash over the stories they’re working on. There’s a warning sign as one enters the Factor’s sector of the room: ‘Restricted Area: Explosive and/or politically incorrect ideas and/or opinions expressed beyond this point.’ It’s an understatement. Some examples: One producer wonders if a guest is fitting for television because she’s ‘an ugly lesbian.’ O’Reilly winces at the idea of having the woman on the show, but not at the remark. He asks, ‘Do you want to force people to watch MSNBC?’ However, he’s inconsistent. When he’s told that another guest ‘looks like a goat,’ O’Reilly responds, ‘Invite her on if she can speak in complete sentences.’”
Playboy: Do you chuckle about your critics or do they anger you?
O’Reilly: If they criticize me for what I say, it doesn’t bother me. If they lie about who I am, it does.
Playboy: CNN’s Tucker Carlson has said only a masochist would go on your show or watch it.
O’Reilly: That’s just stupid.
Playboy: GQ and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called you a blowhard.
O’Reilly: I really don’t care. What’s all this about?
Playboy: What is it about?
O’Reilly: They feel threatened by my success. They don’t like my politics.
Playboy: What criticisms have bothered you?
O’Reilly: When there were attacks about my upbringing.
Playboy: The Washington Post has pointed out that your father’s salary of $35,000, which you wrote about in your book, The O’Reilly Factor, is equivalent to $100,000 today. Yet you claim to be from a blue-collar background.
O’Reilly: What I said was that my father made $35,000 a year at the top of his game. I had been out of the house at that point for 10 years. He got $35,000 because his disability was wrapped up in his last year. I gave the figure as a barometer to the fact that that was the high point of his life. My mother still lives in the house that I grew up in. You’re welcome to go out there and see it. It has one bathroom and three tiny bedrooms. [fuming] Michael Kinsley was running around saying my father made $100,000 a year. Kinsley came on the show and I smashed him. He came on to tell my audience that I was a charlatan, a faker. Well, when I went home to the neighborhood, people who saw the show came up to me and asked, “How come you didn’t punch him?” I had to explain that he was in Washington and I was in New York and I couldn’t go through the camera. They said, “We would have fucking killed him. You send him in here and we’ll show him what kind of neighborhood this is.” Those people fear me because they know I’ve reached a pinnacle in this country that’s very difficult to attain because I care about the folks and the folks know that. There’s nothing they can do other than try to embarrass me personally. It didn’t work.
Playboy: You obviously don’t let it run off your back.
O’Reilly: That’s an attack on my family and you have to defend against that. That’s the Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton stuff where you go out with derringers. I’m not going to let people define me. If they are going to say a lie about me, then I’m going to come right out and say it’s a lie. If they attack me, I’ll attack back.
Playboy: You also seem riled by Matt Drudge’s report that you tried to go after Rush Limbaugh’s show after he lost his hearing.
O’Reilly: That’s pretty low—that I’m taking advantage of Rush Limbaugh’s deafness. How much lower can you get? The truth is that I’ve been talking to these radio people for three years. I called Drudge on it. I said, “You’re being used.”
Playboy: By whom?
O’Reilly: The people who fed that stuff to Drudge feel I may hurt them in the radio industry. If I signed with a certain company, their company may be hurt. The truth is, I really couldn’t care less about doing a radio show. I don’t pitch anything, people come to me. I’m going to sneak in and take Limbaugh’s audience? Come on. I don’t have to do a radio show. We’ll see what comes in, but not if it means I would be accused of taking advantage of somebody’s deafness. When I heard about it, it was like somebody had punched me in the solar plexus. Look, it’s easy to dislike me and you can find a lot of legitimate things to criticize me about. You can talk to 50 people and 25 will hate me and 25 will love me. I’m not a sneak, though. Nobody has ever accused me of being duplicitous. I just don’t play that game.
Playboy: Yet you have described yourself as a pain in the rear and a cocky bastard.
O’Reilly: If you’re going to do what I do, you have to do it with swagger. People aren’t going to listen to you if you’re going, “Well, maybe…” or “I think, but I’m not really sure.” When Joe Namath came out onto the field, he wasn’t going, “Well, gee, maybe if I do this we’ll get a first down.” He said, “We’re going to get a goddamn first down.”
Playboy: How would you describe the Factor? What stories are you looking for every day?
O’Reilly: There’s a delicate balance between covering the major stories of the day and trying to be different. When you watch the Factor, you never know what you’re going to get.
Playboy: But what exactly makes the show number one on cable?
O’Reilly: Clarity. Within 30 seconds, people know what I’m talking about. I don’t care whether you agree with me. The elite media will never understand this, but we’re not trying to make you think the way that we do. This is not Rush Limbaugh, where we mock you or dismiss you if you’re not conservative. We just want you to consider our point of view. When we look for interview subjects, the marching orders to the staff are to get the smartest person that they can get. Get me somebody who can beat me up, who knows more than I do. On the Factor, you don’t know who is going to win the duel.
Playboy: Sure we do. You win.
O’Reilly: I don’t always win—I give the other guy his fair say.
Playboy: Do you agree that you mostly preach to the converted—to an audience of conservative Republicans?
O’Reilly: No. I am talking to people who respond to common sense, not to a party line. I’m a no-b.s. guy and I lay it on the line. I will not stab you in the back; I’ll stab you in the front because I don’t have time to go behind you. Even if you disagree with me, you know that I’m not a phony. I’m not currying favor or pandering.
Playboy: Do you admit that you are easier on the Republicans?
O’Reilly: Ask John Ashcroft. I think he is ineffectual and overly secretive and I say so. He won’t even take my calls. I have gone after Tom DeLay. The audience wants to have tough questions asked of the people in power, which is what I do.
Playboy: Is the Factor’s popularity a reaction to old-style network news?
O’Reilly: Network news was dead before the Factor came on the scene. The shows are there because they make some money, but they have no influence.
Playboy: Yet the network news shows have far larger audiences than you have.
O’Reilly: We do 4.5 million on any given night and they do 9 million. We’re not on in every market. You have to have cable. They’ve got mostly older people, but I’ve got everybody who matters. I’ve got the Hill, everybody in Hollywood. I did Inside Edition for six years and we had an enormous audience—12 million Americans every night. But it had no impact. I could raise money for children or something, which we did on occasion, but we had no power on the Hill. It was because the eyeballs of the powerful weren’t on us. Now they are.
Playboy: What impact does the Factor have?
O’Reilly: We skewered the Red Cross for not distributing the money to the families that need it and they got blasted. After that, they released millions of dollars. We took on Jesse Jackson and his credibility has been damaged. People try to dismiss us, but even those who don’t watch the show hear about it so we have an enormous amount of power. News we report is on all political websites. Bush gets a transcript of the Factorevery day.
Playboy: How do you know?
O’Reilly: We know. And we know that they don’t want to have a guy like me around, because if I have the goods, I will pound on them.
Playboy: Obviously you’re more sympathetic to those you agree with.
O’Reilly: Why would I be? Number one, it’s no fun. Number two, then I could be accused of being a shill for a certain point of view.
Playboy: Which is a common criticism.
O’Reilly: I’m a shill for no one. I’m independent. I’m a shill for myself.
Playboy: Do you admit you would be harder on Bill Clinton than on George W. Bush?
O’Reilly: I’m going to be tougher on Clinton because there are so many more unanswered questions with Clinton.
Playboy: What would be your first question to him?
O’Reilly: I would ask him about the Marc Rich pardon, about which he has never come clean. Then I would segue into the moral relativism that he brought to almost everything in his eight years as president.
Playboy: Is Bill Clinton number one on your “most wanted” guest list?
O’Reilly: Hillary is.
Playboy: More than Bill? Why?
O’Reilly: She’s much more dangerous than he is.
Playboy: How is she dangerous?
O’Reilly: Her ambition has consumed her. Bill Clinton is an opportunist and he doesn’t have a lot of core positions, though he genuinely cares and will try to help. He is interested in other people. I just don’t see that in Hillary.
Playboy: If the Clintons were Republicans, however, would they get the same treatment?
O’Reilly: Ask John Ashcroft if I am easier on Republicans. Ask Tom DeLay. But I’ve never seen a colder, more calculating politician in this country than Hillary Clinton.
Playboy: Many Americans apparently do not agree with you. She has a lot of support.
O’Reilly: They’re entitled to their opinions, but I think most of the people who embrace Hillary Clinton are under the influence of ideology. They’ll support her no matter what she does because they see her agreeing with their core beliefs. That’s the Jesse Jackson syndrome, too. It doesn’t matter what they do, because they agree with me on certain issues I feel strongly about. But it should matter. We just reported that Hillary Clinton didn’t attend one funeral for the people who were killed in the September 11 attacks. Not one. I called her office 15 times to ask for an explanation. They basically gave us the finger. But because of theFactor, everybody in the country knows that Hillary Clinton didn’t go to one funeral for the regular folks killed at the World Trade Center. If I’m running against her five years from now, that’s my first political commercial. Miss Concern didn’t go to one.
Playboy: Is that an announcement that you’re running for the Senate?
O’Reilly: Are you kidding? No way.
Playboy: Going beyond your particular loathing for Hillary Clinton, do you at least agree you reserve your worst attacks for liberals?
O’Reilly: No. For big shots. I killed [New York governor] George Pataki because he wouldn’t do anything about the charity snafu. He could have solved it in a day. I went after him. That’s my job. No one knows how to put me in a box. The effect of the show is that nobody is safe. I don’t make deals and no one can get to me. Jesse Jackson tried to call and threaten. Pataki called and said, “Get him off me.” He called Roger Ailes, who respects me enough to say, “Look, if O’Reilly hasn’t got the facts right, that’s one thing, but don’t call me up and say you don’t like what he’s saying.” Believe me: I worked for CBS and ABC and I know how it works over there. It is a frightening thing to have an uncontrollable bull in the media ring. It’s why Hollywood is going crazy.
Playboy: You started a feud with actors such as George Clooney by saying that he and his peers are responsible for the fact that United Way hadn’t dispersed enough of the September 11 money.
O’Reilly: And he and the others said, “Hold me accountable for a telethon, how dare you?” My view is, “What are you, special? No, you’re not. If I asked for money from anybody and then saw that money wasn’t going where I said it was going to go, I would have the responsibility to do something about it.” Come on. Four of them got it. Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Clint Eastwood and the singer James Brown called. They said, “We’re as upset about this as you are.” Four out of 75. Clooney and his buddies are now whining, calling me names—”O’Reilly, the black Irish guy.” It makes them look stupid. Does it hurt me? I don’t care what they say.
Playboy: They claim you used the controversy to draw a larger audience to your show during sweeps.
O’Reilly: Idiots. We don’t even have sweeps on cable. I don’t need their approval. I don’t want to hang around with them. That’s another difference between me and most other broadcast journalists at my level: I don’t care to hang around with these people. I don’t want to be friends. I’m nice to them, I’m respectful, but I don’t want to go to their houses. Most of them live to go to Le Cirque with Michael Douglas. I don’t have any desire to do that. He might be an interesting guy, but I’m not going to kiss his butt and hope he’ll throw me a crumb. I’d rather hang out with my buddies.
Playboy: Some columnists have said your attack on the charities simply made people more cynical. One said you made it less likely Americans will come together in a future crisis.
O’Reilly: What am I, Up With People? My job is to tell the truth, not to rally people to social causes. We’ve got plenty of other people to do that. Go on Larry King if you don’t want to answer tough questions. For years, Larry King’s big thing was that he could get all the big guns. He can because it’s safe for them. When I started this show, I had to find a way to beat him. Nobody can come on the show with any agreements—don’t ask this, don’t ask that, I need to see the questions in advance. That will never happen.
Playboy: Do your guests ask?
O’Reilly: They don’t ask anymore, but they used to. We laughed. I ask what I want to ask.
Playboy: Are you suggesting that Larry King makes those deals?
O’Reilly: I don’t know what he does, but it’s obviously a friendly venue for anyone famous. When I had Larry King on my program, I said, “Larry, you’re making it really difficult for me because you let these guys say whatever they want.” He said he doesn’t research the guests because it’s their chance to give their views, but the problem is this: How do we know if they’re lying? He had no answer. His mouth hung open. In my opinion, any television interviewer—Oprah Winfrey, Bill O’Reilly, Larry King or Peter Jennings—is responsible to make sure what’s said on his or her program is true.
Playboy: But, as you said, you pay a price. You don’t generally get the biggest name politicians and actors. Is it worth it?
O’Reilly: Is it worth it if I have to coddle them? If I can’t ask them tough questions? I would never do that, so yes, it’s worth it. The fact is, we get more and more of them. One thing that has changed since the election is that we now get all the Democratic candidates who may run for president—John Kerry, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman. They can’t get on the Factor fast enough, because they saw what happened to Al Gore.
Playboy: You’ve said that Gore would have won the election if he had come on your show.
O’Reilly: He would have. I took a lot of heat for that but I was absolutely right. If Gore had come on this program and acquitted himself well, he’d be president right now. Florida is a huge Factor audience. A lot of undecideds are down there. If he had come face-to-face with his toughest interrogator and done well, you’re telling me that 500 people wouldn’t have changed their minds? Maybe I’m wrong, but I think there was a pretty good chance.
Playboy: Why didn’t he?
O’Reilly: He was scared.
Playboy: Was he afraid he couldn’t hold his own?
O’Reilly: There’s no question about it. His advisors were idiots. I pounded him for not coming on. I said he didn’t have the cojones and he didn’t. The Democrats saw it and now they can’t get on the show fast enough. Kerry or Edwards or Lieberman will tell you they get their say on the show. They give as good as they get.
Playboy: When they can get a word in edgewise. Do you admit you often interrupt your guests?
O’Reilly: I only interrupt if someone says something that’s factually incorrect or he wanders from the question. If someone starts to repeat himself, I come in. But I give him a window to answer. What I won’t do is let someone spout rehearsed answers. Ashcroft knows his rehearsed answers aren’t going to be accepted. Even Colin Powell, and I know him well. When you go on the Factor, you’re no longer in control. They hate that. However, if you have it together and you are honest, you should be able to handle any question that’s thrown at you. You are a public servant, answerable to the public. You shouldn’t try to be manipulating the information flow to the public. Just answer the questions. A hundred years ago these guys would have been hanged for a lot of the crap they throw out. People say the show is hostile, but I’m not hostile until you start to lie. Then I’m hostile.
Playboy: You were relatively easy on President Bush.
O’Reilly: I was not. I got him on the death penalty. I don’t think he felt I was being soft when I asked him how Jesus, his favorite advisor, would have felt about all the executions in Texas.
Playboy: What’s your general view on Bush’s presidency so far?
O’Reilly: I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt so far. He’s doing OK. I’m not pounding him because I don’t think we have seen enough. Let’s see how it plays out.
Playboy: Do you anticipate he will come back on your show?
O’Reilly: I think so. It’s not like he’s saying, “I have to get on the Factor,” but he will come on when he wants to talk to my audience. Bush and I have a pretty good relationship, but it’s not because we agree on many issues.
Playboy: If he were to come on now, what would you ask him?
O’Reilly: It depends what happens with the war and the economy. Economic theory is pretty dull, but I have lots of questions about the war. He’s conducted the war brilliantly, but the jury is still out on the economy. It’s not his fault a recession hit, though. It’s terrible when people like Barbara Boxer call it “the Bush recession.” It’s a lie. However, it’s Bush’s responsibility to get us out of the recession, and he’s not going to be able to shirk that.
Playboy: What would you ask Ashcroft?
O’Reilly: All I want to know from him is one thing: Where is the Marc Rich investigation? Don’t Americans have a right to know? We asked him 15 times but he wouldn’t come on, so he sends his spokesperson, Mindy Tucker. I killed her. I said, “Look, this isn’t hard, Ms. Tucker. Where is the investigation?” She said, “I’m not allowed to comment,” to which I pulled out the Justice Department guidelines and read them on the air. I said, “Yes, you can comment. You can tell us in general terms where that investigation is.” Destroyed her. They hate me and I don’t care. John Ashcroft has an absolute responsibility to keep Americans posted about important investigations. Ashcroft will never show up on Larry King and be asked about the Marc Rich pardon. Never in a million years.
Playboy: What were the stories that helped the Factor build its audience over the past five years?
O’Reilly: Jesse Jackson, the election and our war coverage.
Playboy: Was it particularly challenging to cover the war?
O’Reilly: Sure. It was the biggest story to come along yet. The impeachment was big, too. We look at these things from a blue-collar, workingman’s point of view. Here’s what happened. Why? Is it right; is it wrong? People like that rather than these pinheads coming on from Harvard. Your head explodes.
Playboy: You once said that Clinton or Gore would probably have handled the terrorist attack just like Bush has.
O’Reilly: Yes, but they’d be more anguished about their decisions. Especially Clinton. Clinton would have been up at four in the morning, going, “Oh God!” Bush is snoozing at four in the morning. Clinton would be wringing his hands.
Playboy: Is that bad? Don’t you want a thoughtful president who doesn’t make decisions lightly?
O’Reilly: I prefer a guy who says, “Evildoers? Blow them up!” It’s a black-and-white situation to me. I don’t see the nuance in this. I’m more comfortable with the guy who is as angry as I am about it. Bush is, and Clinton wouldn’t be.
Playboy: Beyond the current and recent presidents, what politicians give straight answers to your questions?
O’Reilly: John Kerry. Barney Frank has been very good on the show because he hates me so much. It’s just like venom and makes for great television. I don’t have anything against him, although I do think that some of his positions are wacky. His defense of Clinton was ridiculous, but I enjoy the intensity with which he tries to destroy me. If he could drive a stake through my heart, believe me, he would.
Playboy: The only straight-talking politicians you mentioned are Democrats.
O’Reilly: I don’t know any straight-talking Republicans, do you? I can’t get a straight answer out of any Republicans. I don’t know what they’re talking about.
Playboy: Are there any up-and-coming politicians who interest you?
Playboy: Let’s talk newsmen. Who is your preferred network anchor?
O’Reilly: All of them are tremendously skilled, but Peter Jennings saved my butt at ABC when I swaggered in there. He gave me a chance to do a lot of good reporting. We’re friends and I’ve watched him closely, learned a lot from him about how to communicate with the camera. They’re all good, but they’re timid.
Playboy: Timid about what?
O’Reilly: They don’t go after the powerful. They won’t. They’re afraid of offending someone. They’re afraid of what Bill Maher got.
Playboy: Maher nearly lost his job when he said that Americans fighting wars with cruise missiles are cowardly, while the suicidal September 11 terrorists are not.
O’Reilly: I stuck up for Maher. I vehemently disagree with him, but he has a right to his opinion. On my show, I lit into him about his opinion that the guys who killed all these people in the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were courageous, however. I disagree with that. I think they’re cowards—they want the 70 virgins or whatever idiotic thing they believe. They’re the most cowardly people in the world, but it’s worth debating and the networks are too timid to discuss it. It leaves the field to me. Why should The O’Reilly Factor be on the vanguard of the Jesse Jackson investigation? Why should we be the one that turned the Red Cross around so that it freed up $250 million? The networks should be breaking many, many stories, but they break few.
Playboy: Let’s talk about the competition. What’s your opinion of CNN’s Aaron Brown and Wolf Blitzer?
O’Reilly: They’re OK, but are they ready for the Wild West of cable?
O’Reilly: This is a totally new venue and on it Americans want to be engaged by their newscasters. They want to be challenged. They want provocative presentations. They want opinions that are based on facts, and they want to be stimulated. If they’re not, they’re gone. Are those guys ready for that when their backgrounds are tradition, tradition, tradition? We’ll see.
Playboy: Let’s discuss some of the other people you have taken on. You suggested that Alan Greenspan is “powerful, cold and evil.” Why?
O’Reilly: Maybe he’s not evil, but he is unbelievably arrogant. He doesn’t have to answer anybody’s questions. Once in a while he’ll stroll up to the Hill and give some explanation that’ll bore everybody to tears, but that’s it. I don’t like that kind of power. Basically, he gives the people the finger. “I’m going to do what I want to do and if it doesn’t work out, that’s too bad. You lose your job, I don’t really care.” Way too much power and way too much arrogance.
Playboy: You’ve described Martha Stewart as a “first-rate con artist.” What do you have against her?
O’Reilly: I don’t deal with the souffles too much in my life and maybe I was unfair to Martha Stewart. Essentially, I see cold eyes. I don’t see Julia Child. That is, I’m not seeing a lot of nurturing going on there. I’m seeing a lot of cash registers.
Playboy: What about Oprah Winfrey?
O’Reilly: Both of us worked for King World, so I know her. I don’t think she likes me much. It might be because of Jesse Jackson, though I don’t know. I don’t have a lot to do with Oprah. We tried to get on her program when my books came out, but we got laughed at. We weren’t worthy.
Playboy: Before George Clooney, you had famous run-ins with Tom Selleck and Susan Sarandon. What do you have against them?
O’Reilly: I respect Sarandon. She’s genuinely a good woman, but misguided. She wants to always feel good about what she’s doing. It’s the classic liberal approach. If you don’t agree with her, she doesn’t respond well. She takes disagreement personally, which is not the way to advance yourself intellectually. Selleck is an arrogant jerk. When we had him on the show to discuss the paparazzi who were hassling him, he was a complete jerk. He was furious that we were going to have paparazzi on after him to present the other side of the story. He was arrogant and threatening.
Playboy: Puff Daddy?
O’Reilly: He makes me laugh. He came in with 11 guys wearing short pants and checking the lighting. I got a kick out of him. He was so oblivious. When it finally dawned on him that this wasn’t Entertainment Tonight, he was stunned. I hear he screamed at his people for putting him on my show. [laughs]
Playboy: In your book, you mentioned the sexiest women anchors. Who is on your current list?
O’Reilly: Connie Chung is a very pretty woman with a lot of dignity. She is very attractive. Diane Sawyer is. Barbara Walters carries herself well. You have to understand, they’re not going to put women on the air unless they’re pleasing. Most of these ladies understand the power that they have in a male-dominated industry.
Playboy: How about Paula Zahn and Christiane Amanpour?
O’Reilly: Nah. They don’t have the life experience that adds that extra aura of sexuality to somebody. Katie Couric is interesting. I understand her appeal. As she gets older, she is much more attractive in every way. She has a dignity after surviving personal traumas. That’s what I look for. That’s sexy in a way we were never told about. If you look at the totality of a person, their true sexuality emerges if they have it. There are a lot of people who just don’t have any sexuality. A lot of these bimbos parading around are in that category. You can do as much plastic surgery as you want, baby, but if you’re a vapid idiot who just thinks about yourself 24 hours a day, I don’t want to even see you. Pamela Anderson does not do it for me. Anna Nicole Smith is almost a caricature. I go for women who have a twinkle in their eye. They enjoy being women, they like men. They like to flirt a little bit but it’s not, Look, I just had these done in Tijuana. I’d be afraid to chip a tooth in that situation. The thing is, I’ve always liked women. Women are much nicer than men. From the moment I saw Ann-Margret in Bye Bye Birdie—I was about nine or 10—I knew I was heterosexual. Viva Las Vegas took it to a whole different level. I appreciate a woman who is sexy but subtle.
Playboy: You have taken on gay activists. You’ve famously said, “Dykes on bikes? Take a hike.”
O’Reilly: The point is, when is the gay community in the U.S. going to figure it out that they’re never going to be accepted by most Americans? That is, most Americans are never going to embrace their lifestyle if for no other reason than religion. At the same time, most Americans don’t want to see anything bad happen to gay people.
Playboy: There are some notable exceptions, particularly on the religious right.
O’Reilly: I’m talking most Americans, not idiots. But why must you discuss your sex life? Whether you’re gay or straight, nothing good can come of that.
Playboy: Is it fair to summarize your view as, Don’t ask, don’t tell, not just in the military but also in life?
O’Reilly: Absolutely. Shut up. It’s nobody’s business. Straight or gay. If a straight woman is sleeping with 18 guys and thinks she can go out and tell everybody and not pay a price, she’s nuts. Warren Beatty thinks he’s admired because he was jumping on everybody he could get his hands on, but he’s crazy. It’s not just a gay thing; it’s a sex thing. I would never discuss my private life in any detail with anybody. These guys who sashay around like that are just as pathetic as the guy who’s 55 years old with the gold chains sitting in the Cheetah Club checking out the 25-year-old babes. So shut up about it. Everyone has to make their own individual decisions about their sexuality. That’s part of being an adult. You should be responsible, you shouldn’t hurt anybody and you shouldn’t manipulate or use anybody. But keep quiet. It’s between you and your partner. I’m stunned when people go on about their personal lives in People magazine. I know John Tesh. We were both reporters at Channel 2 in New York. In People magazine he says, “I didn’t have sex with my wife until we were married.” I said, “What the hell are you talking about?” It diminished it. Why are you doing it? For a week’s worth of publicity? It makes me queasy.
Playboy: Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blamed gays along with the ACLU and other liberals for September 11.
O’Reilly: Stupid. I had Falwell on and slapped him around for it. I said, “Your job on earth is to convince people to see things the way you do. You just shot that all to hell—and pardon the pun. People are not going to forget this. People will put you in a category where your enemies want you to be.” He’s discredited. By giving his enemies that ammo, it hurt whatever mission he is on. Robertson is all right, but Falwell believes this stuff. He believes there’s a vindictive God. He believes that the deity is teed off. What are you going to do?
Playboy: Were you self-conscious when you wrote sex scenes in your novel?
O’Reilly: No, I’m a pretty uninhibited guy. It doesn’t seem that way, because I compartmentalize. My social life doesn’t have anything to do with my news career. I don’t blend the two. I was single for a long time. I was all over the world covering wars and met thousands of women. A couple of them even consented to go out with me, which always shocked the hell out of me. I didn’t curry favor with them. I didn’t try to send them flowers. I wasn’t that kind of guy.
Playboy: Did you always want to be a journalist? Were you interested in the news?
O’Reilly: I had no interest whatsoever, but everything else that was around interested me. I grew up during an amazing time. My generation is lucky. We hit everything. I was born in 1949. Just when I’m coming of age, there’s Elvis. I’m singing “Hound Dog” when I’m six years old. Then came the twist and I’m twisting like a madman. I’ve got the hula hoop going and the Davy Crockett hat. There weren’t any child molesters. I could run around and climb trees. My mother wasn’t micromanaging. I didn’t have play dates. I didn’t wear a bike helmet. I could get dirty. I didn’t have to go to the surgeon when I got a bloody nose. I played tackle football without equipment and ice hockey without a helmet. It was a tremendous time to be a kid. When I hit adolescence, who shows up but the Beatles? Then the British invasion. The point: It was just constant excitement and good music until high school, when I got caught up in sports. I played four sports. I was sweating all the time. Baseball to football to basketball to ice hockey. It wasn’t until I got to college in 1967 and Vietnam started to hit close to home that I started to pay attention to the news. I still played football, but I became a newspaper columnist. I was the only jock newspaper guy in the history of the college.
Playboy: Is it true that you planned to become a pro baseball player?
O’Reilly: Even to this day I would trade in all the success I’ve had in television if I could be a pro baseball player.
Playboy: When you got your first network news job in New York, you joked you would have had an easier time if your name had been Redwood or Reef. What did you mean?
O’Reilly: That if my parents had named me Stone or Forrest, I would have had more breaks. There’s no question that Stone Phillips and Forrest Sawyer, who are my contemporaries, got many more opportunities than I did. If I had been a Princeton guy named Redwood and my father had a big job, I’m sure I would have gotten more opportunities.
Playboy: Still, you wound up working in network television news.
O’Reilly: Yes, though my first job at CBS didn’t turn out well. ABC was much better. When I got on with Jennings, things took off. Then I got a call to do Inside Edition. They doubled my salary and said I could cover any story in the world I wanted to cover. How could I turn it down? Jennings yelled at me, “You’re an idiot going over there,” but I did it. I cleaned it up, knocked out the topless babes in the doughnut shop crap. We did the Madonnas and Michael Jacksons, sure. We had to. But we did good stories as well. The Berlin Wall comes down, there’s O’Reilly. Earthquake in San Francisco, there I am. Los Angeles riots, I’m the first guy broadcasting live right in the middle of it all. I’m in Thailand buying a kid—investigating the selling of children. I’m with President Bush Sr. in Cartagena, Colombia at the drug summit. I’m in Monaco doing a piece on money-laundering. It was the greatest job in the world for six years.
Playboy: And then Roger Ailes of the Fox News channel came calling.
O’Reilly: Yes, and I thought I would take a shot. One of the main reasons I went with Fox is because of Ailes, who has a great reputation as a straight shooter. People say Ailes is bombastic, he’s this, he’s that, but you look him in the eye, he’s going to tell you the truth and he’s true to his word. That’s why I went with him.
Playboy: How important was the network’s conservative slant?
O’Reilly: Not at all. As I’ve said, my most loyal viewers are all over the place and so are my views.
Playboy: Let’s look at some. You have said that the federal government has to be tougher when it comes to the environment. With that position, you depart from most conservatives.
O’Reilly: That’s right. There should be a strong EPA. I would make it much stronger. I would levy fines more dramatically on polluters. I would demand that Detroit make cars that get 40 miles to a gallon.
Playboy: Among your environmental views, you’ve taken special glee in attacking sports utility vehicles and have said that women who drive SUVs are especially crazed. Why?
O’Reilly: Power. They get behind that wheel—and watch out. I pull over when I see them, especially if they’re little women with big hair. I’m off the road. The point about SUVs is that they are a symptom of our selfish society, but we need to conserve.
Playboy: Are you concerned about President Bush’s ties to the oil industry? Do you really think he will be able to stand up to that lobby?
O’Reilly: I can’t read his mind. I don’t know what he’s quid pro quo-ing. Enron’s out of business; he didn’t help them, did he? All I know is that it’s an insane policy not to be encouraging conservation and thereby weaning ourselves off OPEC oil. The government needs to be involved there, whereas it cannot solve your personal problems.
Playboy: Is that why you are opposed to welfare?
O’Reilly: It’s crazy. They don’t even drug-test on welfare. For 40 years we have been giving drug addicts and alcoholics checks every month with which they run down and buy narcotics. It’s unbelievably stupid.
Playboy: What would you do about the enormous numbers of poor and homeless in this country?
O’Reilly: Ninety percent of the homeless and all of the social problems come back to addiction and mental illness. Isolate and treat.
Playboy: Explain your view on gun control.
O’Reilly: Like with abortion, you can’t even talk about gun control without people running around the house with their arms up in the air doing the samba because they feel so threatened. I agree that we have a constitutional right to bear arms. It’s against the Constitution to ban handguns. However, there is absolutely no excuse for any human being on the face of the earth to use a firearm in the commission of a crime. We should have mandatory federal sentencing for all crimes committed with a gun.
Playboy: Does the right to bear arms include AK-47s?
O’Reilly: No. The state has a right to ban certain weaponry as unnecessary. You don’t have a right to have a bazooka in your house. It’s a public-safety hazard. You can’t have it, and if you don’t like it, tough.
Playboy: Roger Ailes said that you are opposed to capital punishment because it’s not cruel and unusual enough. Is that a valid statement?
O’Reilly: It’s hyperbole. I’m against capital punishment because I don’t believe it deters the crime that it’s punishing. Also, I don’t believe society should come down to the level of killers. And which is worse, keeping someone in solitary confinement for the rest of his life or putting a needle in his arm when he’s already under anesthetic and he’s out in two minutes? I know which I’d take. Tim McVeigh was begging for the needle.
Playboy: You have criticized the war on drugs. What’s your objection to it?
O’Reilly: In its current form, it’s a joke. Drugs are a health problem. If you’re caught with drugs in your bloodstream when you do a crime, the judge should order you into mandatory, coerced drug rehab. They’re doing it in 10 states. And not for 30 days, which doesn’t work. It’s got to be a year. Not only do you have to wean people off drugs, but you have to teach them how to read, you have to give them psychiatric help, teach them life skills, too. If you come back again, it’s two years. If you come back a third time, it’s three years.
Playboy: Would you legalize or decriminalize marijuana?
O’Reilly: I’d decriminalize it. But if you leave your house and you’re stoned, I’m going to fine the hell out of you and use the money for rehab. If you want to smoke pot in your house and be an idiot in front of your kids, go ahead.
Playboy: Have you tried drugs?
O’Reilly: Never. I’ve never smoked a marijuana cigarette, never been drunk.
Playboy: Weren’t you curious?
O’Reilly: No. Because I always saw what they did to people around me. I was constantly having to take them to the hospital. They were always throwing up. Girls were sleeping with guys and the next day they were sobbing. Intoxication held no attraction for me. I was lucky, because there’s a lot of alcoholism in my family.
Playboy: Do you use alcohol socially?
O’Reilly: No. My mandate is to be totally sober every second so I can see and hear what’s going on. I don’t do anything that detaches my senses from the here and now. As a journalist, it’s a tremendous advantage.
Playboy: Fox News anchor Brit Hume told Playboy that Fox is fair and balanced, echoing the network’s slogan, but do you admit that its point of view is most often conservative?
O’Reilly: The main thing Roger Ailes created is a network that gives people voices you won’t hear on the other networks. That said, the news portion of Fox, which runs from nine until five, is unbiased. Once the news analysis programs kick in, the dominant personalities are conservative. Sean Hannity is a knee-jerk right-winger. Hume isn’t, though he certainly is conservative. I come in and try to give balance. You don’t know what I’m going to say. No matter what you hear about me, I’m the guy who’s fair. Everybody gets treated the same. Everybody gets asked the hard questions, whether Republican, Democrat, Clooney or Ashcroft. Nobody escapes. Do something stupid, no matter who you are, and I’ll call it stupid. Do something noble and I will recognize that, too. As long as politicians and other public figures keep doing stupid things, I’ll be in business. How long will politicians keep doing stupid things? I think I’ll be around awhile, let’s put it that way.