Bill O’Reilly’s Brilliant Interview with President Obama

Bill O’Reilly interviewed our president on Sunday morning for about fifteen minutes of live television. Bill (it’s all first-name basis these days) has been collecting reactions from “the regular folk” and from everyone else who will favor him with an evaluation. Some of his guests have been on his show to talk directly about his interview performance: Brit Hume, Bernie, and Charles Krauthammer.

This seems very odd to me. O’Reilly comes across like a giddy kid who just returned from the candy shop with pockets full of free confection. The last thing he wants to hear is that his interview was inconsequential. Notice how he talks about it. He asserts that probably no live TV interview has been so widely disseminated. (That may be true.)

And notice how he interprets what the president said. He asked whether Obama agreed that he had moved toward the political center since the November election, when so many Democrats were turned out of Congress. Obama said he hasn’t moved. O’Reilly keeps saying that he (O’Reilly) believes the president “really thinks” he has not moved toward the center.

I doubt that Bill O’Reilly knows better than the rest of us what the president believes. I can’t tell from the interview that O’Reilly is in a better position to know than we are. And from what the president said in the interview, I can’t say with confidence what the president believes—certainly not with O’Reilly-styled bravado. I feel more confident saying what the president wants us to believe. And he wants us to believe that he hasn’t moved politically. After all, that’s what he said. What he said is what he wants us to believe.

Of course, as long as it’s unclear what Obama meant by what he said it will be to that extent unclear what we are supposed to believe. The politician’s specialty is to answer a direct question ambiguously, but to disguise its ambiguity so that it is confidently interpreted one way by one group of constituents and is confidently interpreted another way by another group of constituents. If you can get disagreeing constituents to believe they have the correct interpretation of your words and they happen to like what you say on that interpretation, then you have acted the political genius.

The evidence of Obama’s political genius is that O’Reilly thinks he knows what the president believes based on what the president said.

What Obama said is probably supposed to mean one thing to those of us who are troubled by his leftist political outlook, and something else to those of us who are cheered by his leftist political stance. (It may not mean anything to those of us who think he isn’t a leftist.) To the first cohort, it should mean that he has never been the insufferable leftist that many have feared. To the second cohort, it should mean that he is every bit the leftist that many have hoped, and that he will continue to resist insufferable conservatives.

I can’t take seriously any interview where a politician makes it necessary for me to read between the lines in order to “know” what the politician believes or means. This is because one can’t really know what a politician means when what he says is ambiguous—and hence deniable. When the ambiguity is evident, then we should know that we don’t know, and we should know better than to think that we do know. But skillful ambiguity may fool us into thinking that we do know what we don’t know.

So, did O-Reilly discharge his duty as a journalist and press for the kind of clarity needed for his interview to matter? That’s for you to decide.

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

4 Responses to Bill O’Reilly’s Brilliant Interview with President Obama

  1. Doug Geivett says:

    This is fitting, Alex.


  2. Alex says:

    Socrates: And don’t you also invite people to ask you each time whatever they like, because you believe you give expert answers?
    Polus: Certainly.
    Socrates: So now please do whichever of these you like: either ask questions or answer them.
    Polus: Very well, I shall. Tell me, Socrates, since you think Gorgias is confused about oratory, what do you say it is?
    Socrates: Are you asking me what *craft* [techne] it is?
    Polus Yes, I am.
    Socrates: To tell you the truth, Polus, I don’t think it’s a craft at all.
    Polus: So you think oratory is a knack?
    Socrates: Yes, I do, unless you say it’s something else.
    Polus: A knack for what?
    Socrates: For producing a certain gratification and pleasure.
    Polus: So oratory is the same thing as pastry baking?
    Socrates: Oh no, not at all, although it *is* a part of the same practice.
    Polus: What practice do you mean?
    Socrates: I’m afraid it may be rather crude to speak the truth. I hesitate to do so for Gorgias’s sake, for fear that he may think I’m satirizing what he practices. […] But what I call oratory is part of some business that isn’t admirable at all.
    Gorgias: Which one’s that, Socrates? Say it, and don’t spare my feelings.
    Socrates: Well then, Gorgias, I think there’s a practice that’s not craftlike, but one that a mind given to making hunches takes to, a mind that’s bold and naturally clever at dealing with people. I call it flattery, basically. I that this practice has many other parts as well, and pastry baking, too, is one of them. This part *seems* to be craft, but in my account of it it isn’t […]. I call oratory a part of this, too, along with cosmetics and sophistry. […]
    Polus: Tell me what sort of part it [i.e., oratory] is.
    Socrates: Would you understand my answer? By my reasoning, oratory is an image of a part of politics. […] I’m willing to put it to you the way the geometers to –for perhaps you follow me now — that what cosmetics is to gymnastics, pastry baking is to medicine; or rather, like this: what cosmetics is to gymnastics, sophistry is to legislation, and what pastry baking is to medicine, oratory is to justice. […] You’ve now heard what I say oratory is. It’s the counterpart in the soul to pastry baking, its counterpart in the body. Perhaps I’ve done an absurd thing: I wouldn’t let you make long speeches, and here I’ve just composed a lengthy one myself. I deserve to be forgiven, though, for when I made my statements short you didn’t understand and didn’t know how to deal with the answers I gave you, but you needed a narration. So if I don’t know how to deal with your answers either, you must spin out a speech, too. But if I do, just let me deal with them. That’s only fair. And if you now know how to deal with my answer, please deal with it.


  3. Doug Geivett says:

    You make a good point, Ray.


  4. Ray says:

    Of course, it was somewhat difficult for the president to complete a thought that might have cleared up ambiguity if Mr. O’Reilly had actually let him complete his thoughts before interrupting him time and again. So, it’s hard to determine just how intentionally obfuscating the president intended to be. In an age where “jouralism” seems more geared to making or spinning the news for ratings rather than bringing forth facts, I’m not surprised that it came across as if Mr. O’Reilly was seeking sound bites rather than answers.


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