Whom the gods would destroy, they first make TV stars.
A familiar kind of madness too often follows: Delusions of ratings-induced grandeur accompanied by the unmoderated sexual fantasies of 13-year-old boys. Unmoderated, that is, by that greatest of all civilizing agents: fear of the laughter of beautiful women.
Soon enough, though, fame and money no longer suffice. Our hero takes to embroidering upon his personal myth. He transforms a comfortable suburban childhood into a Dickensian life of hardscrabble poverty. He begins fantasizing about athletic feats and martial glory. A successful Little League career becomes NCAA stardom; observing a distant war from a TV studio metamorphoses into a harrowing stint as a war correspondent.
But who cares? Because Bill O’Reilly is a gifted faker with a unique ability to embody the enthusiasms and resentments of his audience, the ratings and the money keep coming. It definitely takes a certain genius. Slate’s Justin Peters nailed it: “As a host, O’Reilly alternately channeled Mike Francesa, Mike Wallace, Krusty the Clown, and everyone’s blowhard Uncle Frank.”
A “War on Christmas,” for heaven’s sake. This in a country where it’s impossible to venture into a public space after Thanksgiving without hearing a Muzak rendition of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
You could even call it a Horatio O’Reilly tale, as in Horatio Alger. But then came the women. Let The Daily Beast’s Pete Dexter and Jeff Nale deliver the punchline of the year: “O’Reilly became a very important man at Fox News, and this he took to heart. His show reached number one of cable news shows, and Mr. O started letting his penis do the thinking. It is not a smart penis.”
Putting aside the question of whether such a thing exists, the star began to act like an eighth-grader prank-dialing the head cheerleader — talking dirty while emitting slapping and grunting noises suggestive of masturbation. In 2004, a Fox News producer named Andrea Mackris, whose “big boobs” he much admired, tape-recorded one of these calls and played it for Fox News lawyers.
They gave her a reported $9 million to go away.
Now me, I’d be reluctant to appear in public, much less on cable TV, after taking such a pratfall, but then I’m not star material. Also, my only direct encounter with sexual harassment came as a victim, rather than a perp.
Long ago and far away, I had an academic superior who delighted in telling people at parties and receptions how I’d stood out among a rabble of otherwise undistinguished job applicants as a “hunk.” That is, my dashing good looks had gotten me the job. He particularly enjoyed narrating this tale in front of my “cute little wife” — as he invariably described her.
I never really thought it was about sex. I’m far too conventional and unimaginative to be mistaken for gay. Also, these humiliations always occurred in quasi-public settings. There was no physical intimidation. I was a rugby player in those days. Unlike a woman, I didn’t need to fear being cornered.
But I also knew that to complain would result in my being portrayed as crazy, homophobic or both. (New England academia was way ahead of the cultural curve.) Also that my tormentor had many powerful allies, while I was expendable. So I did what women have always done: I found another job and quit before I got fired.
Without resorting to amateur psychoanalysis, I ended up thinking it had been all about power. Something about me irked my antagonist — maybe my boring conventionality and cute little wife — and he got off on making me squirm.
But here’s the thing: I never took him seriously.
See, that’s an unacknowledged aspect of the whole Fox News Dirty Old Man saga that nobody talks about. For all their power and notoriety, O’Reilly and recently deposed Fox Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes are 67 and 76 years of age, respectively. Sure, money can buy you love. All you need to do is look at President and Mrs. Trump to know that’s true.
But there’s a limit. Granted, the Fox News brand depends on old duffers in Barcaloungers looking up women’s skirts and calling it news. But for a guy like Ailes, who looks like something that lives under a bridge in a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, to be putting moves on women like former Miss America Gretchen Carlson or Megyn Kelly strikes me as less offensive than comical.
They’re out of your league, old man. Always were.
O’Reilly’s latest quasi-book is called “Old School.” It ought to be called “Middle School.” There he is, an aging adolescent with thinning hair making naughty phone calls, cornering women in elevators, calling the African-American secretary “Hot Chocolate” and grunting at her.
For heaven’s sake, O’Reilly, deal with reality and show some dignity.
Can’t you see they’re laughing at you?
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.