Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bill O'Reilly

There are two reasons that I don’t absolutely despise Bill O’Reilly. One is that I believe he has a sense of humor—he was an awfully good sport on The Colbert Report. The second reason is one that I couldn’t pinpoint until I read a little bit about him: it’s education. I may disagree with, and even think he’s a jerk on the air, but he isn’t an idiot.

He got a Master’s degree from Boston University in broadcast journalism (apparently at the same time Howard Stern was there), and then after he left the tabloid TV show Inside Edition (few people will remember that he replaced the venerable David Frost, who got fired after three weeks), he went to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for a Master's degree in Public Administration. Rush Limbaugh, by contrast, went to high school and dropped out of Southeast Missouri State University after barely a year.

When my boss told me she was going to interview Bill O’Reilly, I begged her to let me come along. She had just interviewed Geraldo Rivera at Fox News, and was understandably wary of going back for more, but when O’Reilly’s custom dress shirt maker said he could set something up, she couldn’t say no.

Fox News is in the News Corp building on Sixth Avenue across from Rockefeller Center (not far from MSNBC) at 48th Street. O’Reilly has a modest-sized corner office on the 17th floor, an office that is very neat, but obviously worked in. There are family photos and award plaques on the walls and the desk has a few orderly stacks of books and files. Set carefully alongside an etched glass sign that bears his name, there’s a bumper sticker that says DON’T TAZE ME BRO!

O’Reilly was cool at first. He rose from behind his desk to shake our hands, but the handshake was weak and noncommittal. He’s an imposing man—he must be at least 6’4”—but he looks a little older in person than he does on camera. His face has more lines and his eyes aren’t as bright.

When my boss pulled out his latest book, an autobiography, it earned a smile, but his offer to sign it was as well-rehearsed as any celebrity’s. I was a little worried that he wouldn’t have patience for our questions about his wardrobe, but he took them very seriously. To him, the suit is a uniform. He’s not a peacock and tailored clothing and all of its accessories are not a way to express his personality. His watch is a $100 Seiko. He thinks cufflinks are too showy and pocket squares are for pretentious people. When he was a reporter at ABC, and Peter Jennings offered to help him get a London posting to “refine the rough edges,” but those rough edges are his working class roots, and he’s proud of them.

The Interview

When asked about Obama, O'Reilly was fair. He admitted that 100 days into the administration is too early to tell whether or not Obama was an effective president. But it was in this statement that O’Reilly began to show his personality: “I think he has to send a message to the country sooner or later—he hasn’t thus far—about how he sees his own country: does he want progressive change (it looks like that’s where he’s going) or does he want to bulk up the traditional aspects of the country (which is pretty much where I am).”

Our mission in interviewing was not to argue with him, but to draw him out. We had thirty minutes of his time and we knew that debates would not be productive. It took me a while to jump in. It would occur to me to challenge him on a point, but then I would stop myself after I realized how combative I would sound.

At times, O’Reilly sounded like the sort of dispassionate observer of American politics that we need more of on television: “I think that religious people in America can be persuaded to vote without using biblical references. I don’t think you need to do that; I mean, I think most people understand the separation of church and state, that we run our secular affairs differently than we run our church affairs. I think it’s only the fringe that wants you to be involved with Jesus while you’re running. The Republican Party understands that they need the independents to come back.”

At this point, I’m starting to like him. And then he starts talking about how “hateful” the New York Times is. He quotes a poll that says 46% of Americans call them selves conservative and says that the Times is “an ideological paper. They don’t report the news anymore and they try to social engineer.” He thinks that the Times and many other papers are going down because they are alienating “traditional” people.

This is where I jump in. What about David Brooks, I ask, Isn’t he their pet conservative? This riles him a bit, and I was stunned by what he said next because it sounded exactly like the sort of thing liberals said about the Bush administration and Fox News itself: “If that’s what the New York Times is telling you is a conservative, that’s not true. He’s a moderate. That’s what he is. So they can say whatever they want. They can say, ‘well that’s a Pontiac’ when it’s a Mercedes. They can say that, but we can see what it is.”

O’Reilly continues with his theory that the lack of conservative voices is killing journalism. “Look, Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago—they’re all bankrupt, and they one thing in common: they are all far-left publications, every one of them. You can’t tell half of your readership ‘go get you-know-what.’ Not in this competitive marketplace.”

I jump in again here, and ask him if Katherine Kersten wasn’t still at the Star Tribune. She wrote her last column in January, but I didn’t know that yet. Neither did he. Here, he says the Minneapolis paper is on its deathbed because it had no conservative voices when it clearly did in Kersten. Her rants against taxes and secular humanists weren’t enough to save the ailing paper because journalism’s problems have more to do with the old economic model of print than with a dearth of right wing writers. And he dismisses the much more conservative St. Paul Pioneer Press because it’s so obviously a lesser paper.

My next question was about his show. “How much of your on-air persona is a persona?” I asked. “None,” he said easily. “Okay,” I replied, “because you sound a little different in the office than you do on TV.” He’s not amused. “How so,” he asks irritably. “I don’t know,” I muse, “here you’re more…I hate to say it but you’re more balanced in the office.”

“You have to show that to me,” he insists, “because we’re pretty fair out there. If you watch on a regular basis, we don’t cheap-shot anybody. There are nights when there will be a certain theme, like tonight with this torture memo stuff, which is absolutely a conservative base show tonight. We don’t believe this is good for the country. But there will be other nights when we’ll be doing some other topics that…I get mail that’s saying ‘you’re too conservative’ and I get mail that’s saying ‘you’re too liberal.’ So as long as I’m getting that mail…”

Leaving the No Spin Zone

As the interview continued, my boss's questions got a little tougher, and I got increasingly worried that we would have to leave without photographic proof that we were there. While having a recording of Bill O'Reilly telling us to "shut up" would be priceless, I was really counting on that photo. We got it, and O'Reilly seemed to genuinely enjoy obliging us.

O'Reilly is the quintessential American conservative right now: he's a blowhard, but he's educated. Not William F. Buckley educated, but that level of intellectual rigor started falling out of fashion when Reagan won. O'Reilly is wary of being called conservative, prefering "Independent." It's a way of hedging, of not committing to a party in deference to both journalism and the populist frustration with politics. He enjoys conceding small points to lend enough impartiality to comfortably call himself "fair." Like most wily conservatives of his generation, he's also adept at using classic liberal techniques to argue conservative points (like calling liberals "hateful" of traditional values and accusing the left of refusing to enter into meaningful dialogue).

My fascination with conservatives like O'Reilly is partly good old American celebrity awe. But meeting him gave me the same sort of smirk I get when I watch strangers arguing with each other on the subway. For a moment, I'm able to set aside my own feelings and ideologies and just watch people posturing, puffing themselves up with self-importance and indignation. And then someone will step on my foot and I'm back on the train again, another angry citizen.

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Quote of the Day: Michele Bachmann

"I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat president Jimmy Carter. And I'm not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it's an interesting coincidence."
That's Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, a Republican serving Minnesota's Sixth District (Anoka, Benton, Sherburne, Stearns, Washington, and Wright Counties -- the Northern Metro exurban Twin Cities area stretching west through St. Cloud). She's wrong, of course; as liberals gleefully point out, that last outbreak started under Republican President Gerald Ford. She was talking to the conservative blog coalition Pajamas TV -- see below:

Bachmann, a very conservative Christian who got her law degree from Oral Roberts University, almost lost re-election last November. Her challenger, the unfortunately named Democrat Elwyn Tinklenberg, got a serious boost after Bachmann appeared on MSNBC's Hardball (see the transcript here) accusing Obama of being anti-American. In an exchange that host Chris Matthews seemed to bait Bachmann into, a McCarthy-esque scene, Matthews asks her:
"How many Congress people, members of Congress, do you think are in that anti-American crowd you described? How many Congress people do you serve with? I mean, it's 435 members of Congress."
To which she replies after some hedging:
"What I would say -- what I would say is that the news media should do a penetrating expose and take a look. I wish they would. I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out, are they pro-America or anti-America? I think people would love to see an expose like that."
That nearly cost her the election. Watch it below.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Air Force One Conspiracy Theories

My best conspiracy theories about the 747 and fighter jets that buzzed downtown Manhattan on Monday:
1. It wasn't Air Force One (or the plane that magically becomes Air Force One when the President is on board), it was a commercial plane that actually was under threat of hijack. The fighter planes were escorting it away from New York because it was carrying explosives, bioweapons, nukes, etc. The crew averted disaster but there was still danger.

2. A photo op? Who are they kidding? If you want a picture of Air Force One flying near the Statue of Liberty, you make one -- with Photoshop. Actually staging the shot is not only costly, it also is way too dramatic. Something else was going on. Like a test that couldn't happen anywhere else.
Now the Washington Post is saying that someone (maybe White House Military Office Director Louis Caldera) may get fired for approving the flyover, which Bloomberg says costed $329,000.

Anyone else have any theories about what was really going on?


Friday, April 17, 2009

Word of the Day: Teabagging

Why are all the liberal pundits laughing at the conservative anti-tax activists who call themselves "teabaggers"? After all, isn't the Boston Tea Party reference pretty clear?

Filmmaker John Waters, director of movies like "Mondo Trasho" and "Pink Flamingos" explained it on the website Boing Boing:
"'Teabagging' is by my definition the act of dragging your testicles across your partner's forehead. In the UK it is dipping your testicles in your partner's mouth. I didn't invent the term or the act but DID introduce it to film in my movie 'Pecker.' 'Teabagging' was a popular dance step that male go-go boys did to their customers for tips at The Atlantis, a now defunct bar in Baltimore."
Ah, that makes sense. What makes it so funny, says Gawker, is that conservatives adopted the phrase themselves.

But by yesterday, the Right had finally caught up. "Teabagging, for those who don't live in a frat house," reads an article on, "refers to a sexual act involving part of the male genitalia and a second person's face or mouth."

Below, Rachel Maddow covers the teabagging on MSNBC. The most amusing video coverage, however, is Gawker's compilation video.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Repost: What Easter Means to Me

I originally posted this story of the origin of the Easter Bunny two years ago. It seems like I have to explain this to someone every year when they ask, 'What are you doing for Easter?' The answer -- 'My family celebrates the Easter Bunny' -- is often taken as a joke. It is not. Read on for the full story:

I've been hearing a lot of people asking about the Easter Bunny, a holiday character that seems to have little or no connection to Christ and his resurrection. A character some may compare to the tooth fairy. The Easter Bunny, I assure you, is no mere corporate concoction. There are some of us who take him very, very seriously.

I'd like to celebrate Easter Sunday by sharing a little bit about my family's tradition. Every family has its own unique way of celebrating holidays, but I think mine may be rather unfamiliar to those outside of Minnesota. My family worships the Easter Bunny, also known as Peter Cottontail, or, as we know him back home, Petro Cottonnius.

What's normal in that folksy Midwestern paradise may seem odd to people today in, say, Brooklyn, New York, but our cultural heritage has deep roots in Ninth-century Eastern Europe, specifically the Balkans. My Scandinavian ancestors inherited the traditions from Viking traders who brought the holiday back to the Nordic countries, and we proudly carry on the celebration today.

I offer this bit of history not just for my readers' edification, but as an alternative to the Christian Easter tradition, which makes many of us very uncomfortable, what with all of its worship of the dead.

So here, dear readers, is the story of Petro Cottonnius, the Rabbit King of Albania, a story very close to the hearts of all Minnesotans.

In around the Tenth-century after Christ's birth, the people of Montenegro, righteous Unitarians all, were suspicious of what they saw as zombie worship with the resurrection of Christ. The medieval Unitarians firmly held that Jesus Christ was a mortal man -- a great one, to be sure (they gladly celebrated Christmas) -- but certainly not the son of God. And definitely not one who rose from the grave.

The Slavs of the middle ages were terrified of the notion of the dead arising, and rightly so after the reign of Viktor the Bleeder, the usurperious King of Albania who would kidnap peasant children and drink their blood. The story goes -- and this may be the earliest European vampire legend -- that King Viktor would bleed the stolen children dry and then bring them back to life as yellowed walking corpses who would in prowl the night wreaking havoc on livestock and crops.

Scholars today argue about Viktor's legacy; some say it was merely the way the following generations explained an awful king who mishandled a famine. But the suspicion of dead people who come back to life was real. The combination of this native fear and the theological belief that there was just one God (hence Uni-tarian, as opposed to Trinitarian), led to a different tradition.

The Montenegrans rightly sought a more jovial hero for this day, Easter. They didn't have to look far, for Easter, as it's celebrated today, happens to fall near the birthday of Petro Cottonnius, the Rabbit King of Albania.

Petro Cottonnius was called the Rabbit King for his abnormally tall ears and a deformity in his knees wherein the joints were actually reversed, giving Cottonnius a peculiar gait that some say resembled a hop. He was of noble birth, and became king during a time of great poverty in the Balkans. The Cottonnius family returned to the throne after Viking mercenaries (not yet Christians, it is interesting to note) defeated the vicious regime of Viktor the Bleeder.

There was much reconstruction to do, not just in the architectural sense, but also in the psyche of the common people of Albania and Montenegro. Rebuilding the trust of the children was on the top of the new king's list.

Legend has it the Rabbit King would hide eggs made from the royal stock of imported sugar (brought in by the aforementioned Viking trader/mercenaries) in the little hamlets of his kingdom. Children would find them and be delighted for the day, forgetting about their crushing destitution. But more importantly, the spectre of that gruesome kidnapper Viktor the Bleeder was no longer haunting families. The throne was a source of joy again.

The celebration of King Cottonnius came about more than a century after his death. While the kingdom was Christian in the sense that they followed the teachings of Christ, they weren't in the sense that they saw Christ as divine. This of course is true of Unitarians today. So the Balkan kingdoms never celebrated Easter until an influx of Catholics came with the widening of trade routes created by the Vikings.

When the Pope officially appointed a bishop for the Albanian region, the Unitarian majority reacted by redefining Easter on their own terms: a celebration of Albanian heritage, and of their Unitarianism. This was now a celebration of the Rabbit King Cottonnius. The practice of making chocolate rabbits didn't come about until some time after Columbus, maybe the 1600s.

Meanwhile, back in Scandinavia, parents had been telling their children the story of the Rabbit King for decades, ever since Viking traders brought back the story of the generous king who would hide sugar eggs for poor children. The Nordic version of the Rabbit King celebration was held in the Spring, but in May, for the Scandinavians had no reason to connect it to Easter.

At some point in the Nineteenth-century, about a thousand years after Cottonnius lived, the Scandinavian and Balkan Cottonnius holidays sort of merged. Both cultures celebrated the day on Easter, but now both held the Christian Easter to be more important. All that was left was a story about some bunny rabbit and an odd tradition of hiding colorful eggs.

But in Minnesota, and in some parts of northern Norway and Sweden and rural Denmark, as in Montenegro today, Petro Cottonnius reigns supreme on Easter.

And so in my family, a typical Minnesotan family, we would wake up on Easter morning knowing that old Petro Cottonnius had hopped through, hiding eggs and chocolate effigies of himself. We weren't suspicious of Christians the way some of our ancestors were -- we were too well steeped in the lore of the good Rabbit King to dwell on some walking dead. It wasn't until I moved to New York a couple of years ago that I realized how insulated I was in Minnesota. It seems that most Americans don't know the true history of the Easter Bunny. I hope this story helps clear some of the confusion about this jolly character.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

BMW Art Cars at Grand Central Terminal

Four of the famous BMW Art Cars are on exhibit at Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan right now. The cars on display are: Frank Stella's 3.0 CSL (1976), Roy Lichtenstein's 320i (1977), Andy Warhol's M1 (1979), and Robert Rauschenberg's 635 CSi (1986). Conspicuously absent is Alexander Calder's 3.0 CSL, the car that started it all in 1975.

When asked by the New Yorker if these cars were art, Frank Stella told Calvin Tomkins that “It depends on who you ask.” From the New Yorker:
“The design is made by an artist, so it’s art.” He declined to comment on the other art cars. “Let’s just say I liked the earlier ones,” he offered, “because they weren’t about being an art item.” Most of the later cars, beginning with Ernst Fuchs’s, in 1982, were production models, not made for the track. “It’s the racing part that’s interesting,” Stella said. “That car I did was a nice introduction to racing, and a relief from the art world.”

Roy Lichtenstein:

Andy Warhol:

Robert Rauschenberg:

Frank Stella:

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Nuts 4 Pot

This map, found on, is allegedly a school project. Writes its creator, "i am doing this for mr demallo class becase he wants us to learn how to use the internet so any way i decided to tell the class about all the nuts cart people who i now also be sellin pot."

One nut cart, which appears to be on the Upper West Side, is described thus:
Squirrely Johnson

"This guy is from Nigeria and he told me once he got away from some cop that was chassing him by runnin in weird circles like a squirrel and when the cop tried to grab him he only got his jacket like how sometimes when you grab a squirrel by the tail the tail pops off. So he says everybody calls him Squirrely Johnson i guess his last name is Johnson. He some times has dimes for not too much but you have to buy nuts first."
(via Thrillist)


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