Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Before or after every speech I ever give, somebody asks me: "What is O'Reilly really like?" My answer is always the same: "What you see on television is what you get off camera. It's the same guy." That much is obvious to anyone who knows him. But what was less clear to me is where he came from.
A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity, O'Reilly's memoir, answers the question. O'Reilly, it seems, was made not born into his philosophy, rather, his values and personae were hammered into shape like a horseshoe, the blows coming not from a blacksmith's hammer, but from life on the quintessentially American streets of Levittown. Interspersing stories of his youth with bloviation on topics like the quality of courage and the necessity for self-reliance, O'Reilly makes it clear that his experiences are his philosophy, his biography is his message.
Does he believe in resourcefulness and ingenuity? Does he look down on the nanny state? It all harks back to his job as a kid painting houses. When his buddy dropped a bucket of white paint on a client's bush, he sawed down the newly decorated plant, replaced it with various branches he collected, quickly cashed the check and was off. When the client noticed that something about the front of his house looked different, O'Reilly hastened to credit his paint job, not the missing bush.
O'Reilly was not the bookish sort. He had no particular interest in anything having to do with the outside world as he grew up. He was a borderline hooligan who Irish mothers must have suspected of "devilment." The title of his book comes from how Sister Lurana described him in grade school.
Most autobiographies relate uncommon stories of great men and women. We ponder how the extraordinary influences of their early life matured them and led to who they have become since. In O'Reilly's case, his Levittown upbringing was the suburban equivalent of Tom Sawyer's. Instead of painting fences, as Mark Twain's character did, he paints houses "coated with slatelike shingles" leaving very little wood trim to work with.
But Levittown was a suburban jungle, the very sameness of its houses seeming to spur rebellion in its youth. O'Reilly was one of those kids who led adults to despair of the coming generation: out for trouble and self-absorbed, a restless rogue. Yet each of his experiences seems to have spawned a philosophy which, in turn shaped a political outlook. He is not driven by polls, but by personal experience. His background has left him with an internal compass that always helps him to find his way.
Al Gore grew up in a Washington DC hotel room while his Dad served in the Senate. Bill O'Reilly grew up in a small house in Levittown while his father was exploited by the Calltex Oil Company, trapped in a badly paying job he hated. And that has made all the difference for both men.
Denied any exposure to reality as he grew up, Gore substituted ideology for experience, science for reality. O'Reilly lived a life just like those he calls the "folks" and always roots his spiels in the world from whence he came.
What is Bill O'Reilly really like? Levittown.
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