Dear President Obama:
You might not realize this, but ever since it was announced that Bill O’Reilly would interview you again on Super Bowl Sunday, he’s been strategizing – sometimes on air – about how best to conduct the conversation.
And while I suspect you have handlers who are charged with preparing you for these bouts, most of them probably aren’t as familiar with the tale of the tape on an unpredictable foe like O’Reilly as I am.
For starters, while this might be just another interview for you, it’s a major event for Bill, especially since this might be his last crack at you during your presidency, and almost certainly his last exposure on this sort of vast stage for several years.
Moreover, O’Reilly will relive this moment by chewing over, analyzing and running clips for days to come. (Just to make sure the reviews are good, he’ll enlist sycophants like Bernard Goldberg and Dennis Miller to reassure him how great he was.)
O’Reilly not only does this sort of thing every day, but he takes pride in presenting himself as the kind of hard-nosed reporter and surrogate for “the folks” who won’t give you a pass, unlike all those mainstream news outlets. And because he does have a way of interrupting and saying unexpected things, he can easily put even a skilled communicator off his game.
So if you want to survive an O’Reilly interview without him laying a glove on you — from the president on down to an ordinary guest — here are some steps to follow:
Flatter him. (Key phrase: “I respect what you do.”) Like a lot of news talent, O’Reilly has a healthy ego. He’s just a bigger, more exaggerated version – Papa Bear, as Stephen Colbert puts it. Getting an “atta boy” from the President of the United States can’t help but turn his head a little, even if many of his viewers see you as a socialist who is secretly trying to destroy America.
Establish rank early. (Key phrase: “Please let me finish my thought.” Repeat if necessary.) OK, this one obviously doesn’t apply to everyone. O’Reilly does a nice job keeping guests off balance by interrupting them. You’ll have to remind him – a few times, probably – that you are the President of the United States, not some professor from a liberal-arts college he booked as a straw man to slap around.
Don’t accept the way he frames issues. (Key phrase: “The premise of your question is flawed.”) O’Reilly has a way of presenting things as if they were conventional wisdom – like the fact he speaks for “the folks” – when they’re often open to debate. Knock him off stride by reframing the conversation, then asking him to defend a line of attack meant to put and keep you on the ropes.
Find common ground. (Key phrase: “You have critics, Bill. Is everything they say about you true?”) O’Reilly is terribly sensitive to criticism, which is why raising the issue of critics will put him on his heels. Bill can’t stand the fact some guy at Mediamatters.org sends out emails detailing his excesses; imagine how he’d feel if the entire Republican Party and 30 think tanks were devoted to it.
Do not joke with him. This is very important. Bill O’Reilly thinks he can be funny, but he has very little sense of humor when it comes to himself. So as much as you might see an opportunity to share a laugh, odds are he’ll see that as obfuscation or a stalling tactic. If you’re going to try to tell a joke or lighten things up, save it for the very end.
Do not lump him in with Fox News. Although he has spent 17 years living adjacent to Sean Hannity, O’Reilly considers himself a very different animal from that sort of raw partisanship. On Wednesday, for example, he endorsed President Obama’s push to increase the minimum wage — and chided Republicans for not getting behind the idea.
So if you say anything about Fox News – and he’s likely to ask, given how indignant the network was about comments pertaining to the network in your recent New Yorker interview – be clear that you are referring to the most ardent partisan voices on Fox, not him.
About that “last word” he’ll promise you… While Bill might say, “I’ll give you the last word,” trust me, you will not get the last word.
Bottom line: His show; his rules. And incidentally, if members of your staff didn’t come up with a list like this, then they’re not looking out for you.