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.

“At Least He Looks Presidential”


Any number of people would look equally presidential in the situation we witnessed tonight. Some of them are good friends of mine. They are self-possessed, have an authoritative bearing, are practiced public speakers across a full range of contexts (including debates), and could have learned everything that was said tonight in less than a week just watching a selection of Obama’s and McCain’s campaign speeches. But none of these friends of mine has any business running for president. Thankfully, they are not.

But Barack Obama and John McCain are running for president. And they both look like they could be president. It’s befuddling and disappointing that this is the single most significant factor the pundits have utilized in calculating the net result of tonight’s debate. Obama only had to look presidential to win—even if McCain also looked presidential—as long as McCain did not deliver a knock-out punch. This because Obama’s lead in critical states has lengthened. And that’s more-or-less how things turned out, if we’re to believe post-debate chatter.

What do pudits mean by a “knock-out punch”? What many of them mean is the slick delivery of a purely rhetorical zinger. An example, courtesy of Brit Hume (Fox News), is Ronald Reagan’s admittedly clever and endearing jibe about not taking advantage of Walter Mondale’s youth and inexperience.

Give me a break. Has the media gone bonkers? The most charitable spin I can put on this is to suppose that the punditocracy is merely speculating (perhaps quite plausibly) about how viewers (especially undecideds) will perceive the outcome. But that isn’t exactly what the pudits are saying. It sounds like it’s what they themselves believe. And they should know better. More than that, they would serve us better if they attempted to educate us in the proper criteria for evaluating a candidate for the presidency. Otherwise, we don’t really need them.

Maybe they think that’s what they are doing—educating us in a tradition of collective wisdom. If so, they and I disagree about what that is and what criteria matter most.

I’m of the anachronistic opinion that we need to distinguish between necessary conditions and sufficient conditions for being qualified to serve as president of the United States. Looking presidential (talk about a subjective variable) may be a necessary condition—may be. But in my judgment it is by no means a sufficient condition. A candidate must have other qualities. And among the preeminent qualities are proven experience and policies that make sense on close inspection.

That probably sounds like an endorsement of a particular candidate. But I’d like to know who disagrees with me about the criteria. “Proven experience” may be a lock for John McCain. “Policies that make sense on close inspection” will be matters of principled disagreement among those who take pains to understand proposed policies thoroughly, know what to look for in sensible policies for times like these, and have the disposition to embrace those policies.

Do you reckon you’re one of those people? I’m not sure I am. Remember that “zen-like” question the candidates had to answer at the end of the debate? “What is it that you don’t know now that you’ll have to learn after you become president?” Maybe those of us who plan to vote in November should be asking ourselves a parallel question: “What is it that we don’t know now (about the candidates) that we’ll wish we knew after one of them becomes president?” Something tells me that tonight’s debate did little to dispel our dangerous ignorance.

Our democracy is threatened by a glib populism. I suppose that’s always been true to some extent. But greater access to modern media by more people, and the dumbing down of America, is cause for concern. This can’t be what the Founding Fathers had in mind, though I’m sure they feared the possibility of its emergence.

Let’s at least think as hard as we can before we “pull the lever” (to use a quaint expression).

Was It Sarah Palin’s Speech or Not?


“Of course, Sarah Palin’s speech was written by someone else.”

How many times did we hear that from the media last night? I lost count. Keith Olbermann will say anything to make sure people know he’s on the far end of the liberal left. So when he said it, it really didn’t count. But others chimed in. Read more of this post

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