The well-known thinker Bill O’Reilly has thought it over and issued a report on the state of the American press. The news is not good.
The report arrived two or three weeks ago, gift-wrapped as a present for the high-riding Republican front-runner Donald Trump, a scorched-earth attack on Trump’s old nemesis, the news. As regular devotees of O’Reilly’s show understand, Mr. O’s gifts tend to arrive with a self-interest clause, a “something-we-can-both-use” aroma about them, which is something like presenting the lady of the house with a French maid costume for your anniversary, or Ralph Kramden giving Alice a bowling ball for Valentine’s. If you do not know who Bill O’Reilly and Ralph Kramden are, by the way, do yourself a favor and find out who Ralph Kramden is very soon.
But I have strayed. O’Reilly’s assessment is that the American press “despises” The Donald for the following reasons:
Because he has no fear.
Because he could not care less about censoring himself.
Because the press does not intimidate him, and because of that approach the media believe they must punish Mr. Trump for being disrespectful and not cowering before them, plus they don’t like his politics, generally speaking.
All of that in quotation marks. O’Reilly, word for word.
And that being the case, those of us in the flock already know that O’Reilly’s defense of Donald Trump is not really about Donald Trump (yes, I realize that this thing I have about watching O’Reilly is getting out of hand. It is like being addicted to the same 60-minute infomercial day after day, only there is more stuff to buy) but Mr. O himself. Still, who else—what other journalist, present or past—would call for a nationwide change in the civil laws to make it easier for celebrities to sue newspapers for invasion of privacy, because 11 years ago he was forced to settle a seven-figure sexual harassment suit out of court, and the specifics of the harassment charges showed up in detail in the press? Mr. O vowed never to talk about it again, and didn’t want anybody else to talk about it either.
But talk they did—particularly the tabloids—admittedly without much sympathy, and O’Reilly has been angling to protect public figures from the First Amendment ever since.
Where else am I supposed to go to watch something like that?
But I continue to stray. Mr. O has not finished assailing the press. The press, he says, “is a very powerful force in America”—huh?—and “if (the press) deems someone unworthy, they will try to destroy that person…
“Unfortunately, the American media—although there are exceptions—are not looking out for you. They have an agenda, these people, and they often use that agenda in corrupt ways.”
This looks to me like a misunderstanding, which means that I’m not sure putting a clown’s nose on Donald Trump’s picture and running it on the front page signals the kind of all-in, Old Testament hate that O’Reilly thinks it does.
The relevant case, as I think they say in court, goes back not quite to the Old Testament, but close. Nineteen forty-seven. The war is over, television has begun its invasion and professional wrestling has caught America’s eye. The country is taking a break, a little quiet time between wars. It is still two years before the world will first hear Bill O’Reilly scream. America needs a new rallying point, something to unite against until the next war, and up steps a 22-year-old eighth-grade dropout named George Raymond Wagner.
Gorgeous is not much to look at—five-eight or so, 210 pounds, pale-skinned and dimpled with fat, nothing to brag about even in wrestlers of television’s first, pre-steroids, era. Yet George has something that Haystacks Calhoun and the others don’t. He has an idea. And hair. Long, blond, 100-strokes-a-night tresses, which he primps at like a movie star in and out of the ring, often over the bodies of his victims.
And cheat? He gouges you in the eyes, kicks you in the spine (strangely enough, nobody ever got kicked in the lap in those days), rakes your ears, your nose, your eyebrows, pulls down your wrestling tights when the referee isn’t looking, and sometimes yes, pulls hair. Strangely, nobody ever seems to pull his back. But that’s not all. Most of the brutalized are clean-cut, follow-the-rules American boys, some just home from the war. Does Gorgeous care?
He cuts off the referee’s view and uses a string hidden in his trunks for strangling, then judo-chops you in the Adam’s apple. He gives you the business with his middle knuckle, he bites and pinches. He mauls you and then runs out of the ring like a coward when you get mad, and two minutes later, he is flying off the top rope at the corner ring post and mashing your kidneys with the heels of his wrestling boots.
And afterwards, he primps. An assistant brings him a mirror, and if the referee and the wrestling officials turn their backs, he sneaks around behind them and kicks you in the head again, just to be kicking somebody in the head, and even as America screams for his blood, Gorgeous is taking in the money. He relieves the announcer of his microphone and brags to the mob that he is not only the greatest wrestler in the world but also the most beautiful, desirable man in America.
By now, at the height of his detestation (popularity—what’s the difference?) Gorgeous is demanding—and getting—50 present of the gate everywhere he wrestles. He marries a girl named Betty Hanson in the wrestling ring and draws the largest audience that has ever watched anything on television, and when it works he does it again and again, in rings all across the country.
Still, like anything else, it ends. The glory years are over. George retires in 1962, losing his last match to The (masked) Destroyer, and, following to the special rules of the contest, trims his flowing, blond fleece to the scalp. In one year out of the spotlight, Gorgeous George drinks himself to death. Forty-eight years old, it makes you sad, thinking of how much fun he left behind.
The life however is not wasted. George spawns thousands of braggarts. Generations of them ride the nation’s derision, some to wealth and fame. Empty résumés, invented pasts, half-truths. One of them, a young light-heavyweight boxer named Cassius Clay, confuses the genre by making good on every promise, not only in the ring but out, beginning when thousands of Americans shell out exorbitant pay-for-view prices all over the country to watch his public execution by Sonny Liston—the scariest black man in the world, an 8-to-1 favorite. And now who to root for? The kid with the mouth makes it confusing to be a racist.
He beats Sonny Liston of course, twice. Clay becomes Ali, who becomes a serious man, and I think probably a great man, and his reach goes farther than even he intended. A long way beyond boxing. And the truth is, that ruins the fun. At least for those of us who have to turn away toward the end out of fear that he will be hurt.
Luckily, there is only one Ali, and only one Gorgeous George. Hundreds of pale imitations, some of them old men still out there slinging hash, bragging, pretending to be what they’re not. Some of them forgetting that they are pretenders. The beauty of it, you don’t ever worry about any of them getting hurt, because there’s nothing there but vanity. Nothing to keep you from enjoying the show.
What is more fun for the audience than of them getting huffy and accusing the press of “corruption” for putting a clown’s nose on a clown?
Booing has always been half the fun.