Bill O’Reilly Interviews Barack Obama: Originality A; Execution B

–Richard E. Vatz, Ph.D.

     Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly interviewed President Barack Obama on Super Bowl Sunday.  Such a presidential interview with the network presenting the football ultimate event has become somewhat of a tradition. 

     But this was something special.

     Forever, it seems, some of us pundits have been wondering why the White House Press Corps and others have not asked the President about some of his indisputable policy failings and rhetorical contradictions. 

     Has it been that they, the interviewers, are afraid of appearing disrespectful and thus vulnerable to being left out of the presidential loop, or is it because most of the media have been too politically sympathetic to the President, or is it both?

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     No matter; O’Reilly is neither too mystified by the presidency nor afraid of repercussions.
     In an interview aired live on Fox (coupled with additional material in a later broadcast) Mr. O’Reilly demonstrated that President Obama simply has no answers regarding apparently unanswerable questions, and he uses the traditional interviewee tricks when he is caught in a misstatement or defending a patent policy debacle: ignoring the question, non-responsive answers, and/or attacking the questioner.

     Good questions are important, but it is the tough follow-up question or questions which distinguish good interviewers from interviewers who get non-answers or inferior answers. 

     Let’s look at some of the highlights of the O’Reilly-Obama interview:
1.          O’Reilly asked the President why he didn’t fire Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for the problems, and the president dodged the question, saying that his ”main priority right now is making sure that it delivers for the American people.”  O’Reilly appropriately followed up, “”You’re not going to answer that?”, and when Obama responded about his intent on health care, O’Reilly again asked why she was not being held accountable, and Obama said “everybody” is held “accountable.”  The President simply refused to answer the question, but the viewer can see that through O’Reilly’s follow-ups.
2.          O’Reilly asks about the repeated false assurances the President made that “if you like your insurance, you can keep it.”  He could and should have added the other linked promise that if you liked your doctor, you could keep him or her, but, regardless, the President avoided that question by saying merely that he regretted it but did not answer why he had stated a factual inaccuracy repeatedly.  Obama added that part of the problem was that O’Reilly and others like him had focused on it.  The President thinks the problem is the criticism of his fatuities, not the fatuities themselves.
3.          O’Reilly asked the President why he would not refer to the Benghazi murders of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Libya as ‘terrorism,” but he (O’Reilly) errantly, in this writer’s view, structured the question around whether the President was informed accurately by Secretary Leon Panetta.  The question should have been why the President falsely claimed that he said at the beginning it was “terrorism” when he didn’t and why for weeks on he maintained that it was an ad hoc criminal event.  The President not only claimed that there was no deception, but he again blamed O’Reilly and others for distorting Benghazi due to their “political agenda.”  Obama’s conclusion: “But the main thing that all of us have to take away from this is our diplomats are serving in some very dangerous places.”  Just an appalling misdirection.
4.          O’Reilly asked the President if he were the most liberal president in history, and the president disingenuously said that Richard M. Nixon had some unrealized liberal components of his presidency (true, but irrelevant to the question) and that a couple of others were liberal, but he simply did not answer the question.

     There were other issues, but the significance of the O’Reilly interview is that the President was finally asked publicly by the press concerning issues that had only been hinted at and never pursued.

     O’Reilly interrupted Obama a bit too much, but it is near-impossible to conduct a perfect interview on contentious matters with a president of the United States on issues he had not had to confront.  Just ask Bret Baier, another excellent Fox interviewer.

     Was there a surprise pursuant to the event?  Yes, both The Washington Post and The New York Times praised the interview. 

     Why have they never criticized the lack of good interrogations of the president during the Obama era?
     Don’t know, but this is a good beginning.
Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University and is author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2013)

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