My meeting today with Fox News Channel star Bill O'Reilly
This morning, four years after he called me a "race baiter" on his show, I finally met Fox News Channel star Bill O'Reilly in person.
And it was, I gotta say, a bit anticlimactic.
Fox News had already declined my request for an interview when he was in Tampa Sunday. But the folks who organize the Town Hall lecture series at the Van Wezel Hall in Sarasota were holding a small press conference before his speech there and invited me down.
Once O'Reilly knew I was there, the officials at the Town Hall organization wanted to know just once thing: Would I be civil?
"I plan on being civilized as long as he is," was my answer. I have since learned that question came, in part, from O'Reilly's concerns that a conflict between the two of us might derail the press conference for the other participants.
That's also because O'Reilly and I have a long history. He called a me a "race baiter" on his show back in 2008, and has complained about my criticism of how he talks about racial issues -- from his surprise that the black-owned, well-respected Harlem restaurant Sylvia's didn't feature "any craziness at all" when he dined there, to comments that a "gangsta" lifestyle helped trap some of the poor and powerless in New Orleans after Katrina.
I think, especially in the past, O'Reilly has been too quick to use rap culture and the language of black youth as an excuse for many of the problems plaguing black and brown people.
But when we met this morning, O'Reilly wasn't going to discuss it.
Why did he call me -- along with Jesse Jackson -- a race baiter? O'Reilly said: "I don’t have that quote in front of me. I’m not going to answer quotes that I said four years ago. 'Cause I don't know what the context is. I can’t answer the question because I don’t know. If you have a transcript, I’ll take a look at it."
Well, I explained, the gist of your commentary was that white people are so afraid of being called a racist they won't talk about race issues with black people. Is that still true? "I don't know what you're talking about," he said, before complaining that the liberal media watchdog site Media Matters took his comment about Sylvia's out of context. "I treat everyone the same."
Okaay. So What about your fellow Fox News anchor Sean Hannity's stories on Derrick Bell, the now-deceased Harvard professor? (Hannity says 20 year old footage of Obama introducing Bell at a rally proves the President has ties to radicals; O'Reilly said on his own program his research showed the professor was "anti-white."
"I don't like Bell...but I don't think it's important," O'Reilly said. And so it went.
To be honest, his attitude didn't surprise me much. Beyond wanting to avoid a scene which might make news, O'Reilly increasingly has resembled a more reasonable voice on Fox News, particularly as some conservative rhetoric has gotten shriller.
I watched Sunday night in Tampa as he waved off catcalls from the audience after saying Obama was not a wide-eyed radical or even a bad person. He described how Obama spoke to him behind the rope line at a campaign event in 2008, noting how the then-candidate put his arm on his shoulder even though "I know he hates me" and was friendly. "I think he took my wallet," O'Reilly, quipped, before delivering the real punch line. "That was a joke for the Tampa paper. I know you're out there."
O'Reilly's speaking tour features him being charming and telling stories -- kinda like your gregarious uncle at a party, if your uncle went to Yankees/Red Sox games with Mitt Romney and told jokes about Sandra Fluke being in California on spring break.
On his show, O'Reilly discussed Bell with Geraldo Rivera, asking questions about whether it mattered that Obama embraced the onetime Harvard professor, allowing Rivera to passionately oppose Hannity's darker insinuations without forcing the host to take much of a position on the story itself.
It's a measure of just how polarized our discourse has become that O'Reilly -- who I once saw intimidate an entire roomful of TV critics with allegations of liberal media bias -- now seems like the mellow end of the scale.