The Cable Guy
How Bill O’Reilly became a factor in my life.
Ten years ago I spent the winter alone at the ranch watching cable news with my five dogs, the Friedmans. In the beginning I preferred CNN, but the Friedmans became viscerally addicted to the rabid pursuit of Fox News. I didn’t really have a dog in the hunt, so I’d go back and forth between liberal CNN and conservative Fox. (That’s part of the reason I’m bipolar today and planning to kill you.)
I soon cut off virtually all human interaction and became a 24-hour-a-day cable news whore. I stopped watching the regular networks completely. I no longer read newspapers or magazines. I did not sleep or shave or call friends or go into town except, very occasionally, to get food for the Friedmans. I didn’t have the Internet back then and, praise the Lord, I still don’t. That meant I got all my news from CNN, Fox, and MSNBC.
I would mute and unmute the TV all day and all night, drinking coffee, smoking cigars, burning wood in the fireplace like a widow woman, and sleeping fitfully, often dreaming that I was a special correspondent for one of the networks. I began to imagine that I was friends with the anchors and quite often would talk to them when they appeared on my TV screen, sometimes suggesting story ideas. Soon they became my only friends.
Today I have millions of friends—so many, in fact, that I can’t buy my own drinks anymore. This is partly because of my ubiquitous appearances on Bill O’Reilly’s show, The O’Reilly Factor, which has the highest ratings in all of cable land. No one is neutral about Bill: You either love him or hate him. I like him because he gave me the gig. I also like him because he doesn’t give a damn what people think about him. For my money, in spite of his sometimes obnoxious style, Bill is one of the two best interviewers on TV today (the other is Don Imus). The job of a journalist is not to be totally, antiseptically objective; it involves the sacred task of getting at the truth. When you’re dealing with politics and politicians, this can be a tedious and daunting endeavor. My heart has always been with the truth-seekers and the truth-tellers and the people with good BS meters. I believe Bill scores highly in all these categories.
The first time I met Bill I had my doubts whether it could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. It was 2005, during a live interview in New York about my campaign for governor. Bill, if you haven’t noticed, does not throw softballs—only fastballs, curves, and a nasty spitter. It was not going well.
“Texas is an overwhelmingly Christian state, Mr. Friedman,” Bill was saying. “How do you, as a person of the Jewish persuasion, relate to that?”
“Well, Bill,” I said, “I consider myself part of the Judeo-Christian ethic. I have Jesus and Moses in my heart.”
“And Moses?” Bill said, rubbing his hands together like an insect. “Jesus and Moses?”
“Damn right. Two good Jewish boys who got in a little trouble with the government.”
Bill did not laugh. He did not even attempt a smile. There were only about 17 million people around the world watching this televised incarnation of the Hindenburg. Maybe things would pick up. They didn’t. Bill merely segued to another topic, continually referring to me as Mr. Friedman in what seemed to be a pointedly personal, almost hostile manner.
I perked up slightly at the mention of illegal immigration, however, because I’d been touting Joaquin Jackson’s Five Mexican Generals Plan, which, if it didn’t quite provide me gravitas, at least brought a chuckle.
“Well, Bill,” I began, “we divide the border into five jurisdictions and we appoint a Mexican general in charge of each. We give each Mexican general one million dollars, which we hold in escrow, and every time we catch an illegal coming through his jurisdiction, we withdraw five thousand dollars.”
Bill looked as if he were going into a diabetic coma. Illegal immigration, apparently, was a subject very dear to his heart, and he did not find the Five Mexican Generals Plan even remotely humorous. Seven minutes of live television, I have found, can be an eternity.
The only noticeable softening along the stern plane of Bill’s countenance came as we were discussing education. I told him he was one of my heroes because he’d once been a teacher. He smiled a warm and wistful smile, and I knew just how he felt. I too believe that my own time in the Peace Corps may well have been the most decent work I’ve ever done in my life.
I didn’t see Bill again until last year, when we accidentally crossed paths in the Fox News greenroom as I was hawking my book You Can Lead a Politician to Water, But You Can’t Make Him Think on another show. Bill and I said casual hellos and were soon saying casual goodbyes when Rebecca Davis, my ever-vigilant publicist from Simon & Shyster—I mean, Schuster—came to the rescue.
“Why don’t you put Kinky on your show?” she piped up.
“Good idea,” said Bill with a slight moue of distaste. “Call my office.”
Rebecca rolled her eyes at me. I picked them up and rolled them back.
A week later, however, lo and behold, Bill’s office called with an offer I couldn’t refuse: to appear on The Factor, paired with NPR political analyst Juan Williams every Monday night through the election. Hell, I thought, I knew people who’d died from this much exposure.
These days we seem to be getting along like a happy if somewhat dysfunctional family. Juan and I are bonding nicely. (I’ve suggested that since he’s black and has a Hispanic name, we could slap a cowboy hat on him and run him for lieutenant governor.) Bill is dealing with me in his most self-effacing Lieutenant Columbo fashion. He asks me questions, and I say things like, “Well, Bill, Obama’s too skinny to be elected president, McCain’s too old, and Hillary’s just staying in the race to irritate Dick Morris.” On another occasion, I told him that Mexico dropped out of the Olympics: “Everybody who can run, jump, or swim,” I explained, “has already left the country.”
I also called the Texas and Pennsylvania primaries accurately, thereby winning a bet with Bill for a big, hairy steak next time I’m in New York. But the best sign that things are finally going well is that Bill no longer calls me Mr. Friedman. He calls me Kinky, which, of course, is my Christian name.
Another good sign is that I’m receiving gifts and letters from all over the world. The most recent was a beautiful coffee mug from a lady in Alabama. The inscription reads “Sweet Jesus, I hate Bill O’Reilly.”