That Was Stupid

The Obama and O’Reilly Interview Was a Super Snore

With nothing at stake, Fox's pre-Super Bowl interview between the president and O'Reilly was just going for bread and circuses. Get the ratings, go after Hillary.

Well, that was just stupid. The first time, in 2011, the last time Fox had the Super Bowl, it was kind of exciting when Bill O’Reilly interviewed Barack Obama. Obama’s aides, you’ll recall, had been knocking Fox, calling it not a real news station. Roger Ailes & Co. returned fire and then some. The tensions were deep.

Remember how much was at stake in February 2011: The GOP had just started running the House; we all knew huge showdowns were coming; and of course all of it was prelude to 2012. That O’Reilly interview—I remember a definite sense of drama around it—was a sort of Peoria tryout for everything the right would throw at Obama in his reelection campaign.

This time? It was mostly like both of them were actors playing “Barack Obama” and “Bill O’Reilly.” Going through the motions. Oh, there were brief moments of frisson. O’Reilly’s best assay was the Kathleen Sebelius question. “I’m a taxpayer,” he said; I’m confused about why she still has her job. Of course, Obama totally ducked that one, talking in vague and general terms about accountability. Here’s what he should have said, what I’ve always thought he should have said whenever anyone asked about her: It wasn’t her fault. It was my fault. I can’t fire myself, and I don’t think it was quite a fireable offense given all the other stuff I have to do, but it’s on me, not her.

Outside of that...I was genuinely surprised that O’Reilly devoted, what, half of this brief interview to Benghazi and the IRS. Again, Obama sort of ducked his direct question, about what then-SecDef Leon Panetta told him, and stuck to the White House talking points. But outside the Fox News swamps, no one thinks it’s scandalous. This was just for ratings. He’ll get a whole week’s worth of segments out of that exchange, and that’s all he wanted.

As to the IRS business, O’Reilly just embarrassingly doesn’t know the facts; but then, he is a Fox host. Douglas Shulman did not visit the “White House” 157 times. The vast majority of those visits were to the Old Executive Office Building. I’ll grant you that’s next to the White House, but the president does not hang out there. As The Atlantic wrote:

The public meeting schedules available for review to any media outlet show that very thing: Shulman was cleared primarily to meet with administration staffers involved in implementation of the health-care reform bill. He was cleared 40 times to meet with Obama's director of the Office of Health Reform, and a further 80 times for the biweekly health reform deputies meetings and others set up by aides involved with the health-care law implementation efforts. That's 76 percent of his planned White House visits just there, before you even add in all the meetings with Office of Management and Budget personnel also involved in health reform.

Obama said in the interview he didn’t recall ever meeting Shulman, which is credible. The head of the IRS just isn’t at the level of person who gets to see the president. And yet, on Fox last year, this fake 157 number was basically Obama and Shulman meeting personally, plotting on a near-daily basis how to deny tax-exempt status to some third-rate Tea Party offshoot group in Nebraska. O’Reilly himself called the phantom number the “smoking gun” back in July.

Obama, again, didn’t answer nearly as forcefully as he could have: “Why, Bill, has Darrell Issa’s committee interviewed twenty-something people and come up with nothing?” Even so, the exchange did lead to Obama’s best moment, when after futzing around he finally said declaratively: “Not even a smidgeon of corruption.”

One has to assume O’Reilly went over his questions with Ailes. Interesting, then, that there was nothing about the future at all—nothing about the debt ceiling, nothing about “hard left” (as Fox would see it) economic populism, nothing about the United States selling out its prestige and position to Iran; three or four other future-oriented zingers that would have delivered a lot more pop and would have put Obama on notice that Fox was still loaded for bear.

But they aren’t. And it ain’t 2011 anymore. Obama was reelected, and they’re not getting rid of him, so they’re just going for bread and circuses. Get the ratings, and start aiming at Hillary.

But promoting whom? That’s Fox’s problem right now. Ailes is canny enough to know that he can’t promote Rand Paul or Ted Cruz. Will it be Jeb, who doesn’t seem like he wants it? One of those so-so governors? I don’t know. But this interview told me that Fox has already basically forgotten about Obama and is sweating bullets looking at the next President Clinton being in office until 2024 and outlasting all of them, Ailes and O’Reilly and maybe even the younger Hannity. The idea of 16 straight years of Democratic presidencies might even make them cash in the whole deal. They have the numbers and probably always will, but it’s only because millions of jumpy reactionary Americans share their neuroses.