On Friday night Bill O’Reilly had George Will on his program. The purpose was to “discuss” O’Reilly’s new book, Killing Reagan, and a column Will wrote criticizing it. In the column, Will took apart O’Reilly’s thesis that, as a result of the 1981 assassination attempt on him, Ronald Reagan suffered from developing dementia during the rest of his presidency. He concluded that Killing Reagan was a “fact free zone.”
You have probably heard that the Fox News host came unhinged on air, ranting that Will, one of America’s most respected and even revered columnists, was a “hack.” It was a shocking performance, but in keeping with a trend regular viewers – myself included – have seen developing for months. O’Reilly once ran a debate program. In the past year, he has transformed it into a harangue program, with guests serving primarily as props for whatever topic O’Reilly wanted to declaim on. On Friday night, he tried to make it a bully program, except the bespectacled gentleman he intended to pummel knocked him out of the ring without breaking a sweat.
I won’t go through every part of the Will critique to which O’Reilly took such bellowing exception. Powerline’s Scott Johnson has done a good job of that, as have Commentary’s Peter Wehner and a number of others. A quick Google search will pull up the list.
But here is one example. It turns out that O’Reilly and his co-author never visited the Reagan Library to check documents they cited and never interviewed or even sought interviews with Reagan’s closest aids. The aides “had skin in the game,” O’Reilly shouted on the program. To which Will coolly replied, “They had knowledge of the game.”
But the fact is that it is hard to find any president for whom anyone involved in the life of the nation does not have skin in the game. We talk about how divided the country is today, but most of those division go back in one form or another to the late 19th century and even to the American founding. Presidents achieve the top office by taking positions on those issues. And, as most of most of us have our own views on the same questions, we retain a stake in those men long after they have passed from the scene.
To me the question is, how can it be that O’Reilly has morphed from the spirited debater of the past to the knuckle dragger that showed up on Friday night?
Part of it may be his age. He doesn’t seem as sharp as he once did. He may fear he’s losing his edge, unable to prevail if he actually engages.
Perhaps, too, he fears he is losing his audience. For years he was untouchable at the top of cable’s nightly ratings poll. Then in August Megan Kelly bumped him for the month. He is back in the lead now. But even the a brief loss must have shaken him. On Friday night he acted like an adolescent hiding self-doubt.
And perhaps weakness behind the curtain of confidence is why Mr. O’Reilly seems to find any criticism intolerable. When he reads critical letters on air, his replies can be sharp, even nasty. He comes off as particularly touchy about his books, even though many are on the best-seller list, thanks to his relentless on-air hawking.
But now, judging from George Will’s column and Mr. O’Reilly’s over-the-top response, it is fair to say that Killing Reagan, at least, is in no way a work of history. It is a slapped together entertainment – reporting on the level of Dan Rather, which is to say fiction dressed up as fact for the circus parade.
Yes, the Friday Night Fight went to George Will by a knockout.