Everyone was well-behaved when Fox's Bill O'Reilly came on NPR's Morning Edition Tuesday to promote his new book Killing Lincoln. NPR anchor Steve Inskeep was no hardball-throwing Terry Gross, and O'Reilly was wearing his pox-on-both-houses centrist hat and tried to say nice things about Obama. He denounced the media as a "bunch of guttersnipes," but when Inskeep nudged him about whether he was also guilty of slamming people, O'Reilly insisted "I'm trying to do the right thing."
This sounded odd after all the NPR-Fox News crossfire in the wake of NPR firing Juan Williams over an interview on O'Reilly's show. But by far, the oddest part came when Inskeep tried to suggest our current "broken" politics could lead to another civil war and massive death. Speaking of Lincoln's time, he said: "They tried to deal with it. They couldn't deal with it over time, and in the end, it led to a war and hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Do you wonder if the political system is breaking now?"
Before that, the NPR anchor asked if the press in Lincoln's time might have been a bit overwrought:
INSKEEP: What did you think when you went back and read the media in those days, you know, it would say that Lincoln's a dictator, that Grant's a drunk, that General Sherman is insane? Everybody was ripped up at one time or another.
O'REILLY: Well, that's what the media is today. The media remarkably hasn't changed since Benjamin Franklin was - written "Poor Richard's Almanac." The media is a bunch of guttersnipes and, you know, low - what can I tell you? I mean, look. I'm in the media. I've been doing it for 35 years. I know the media as well as anybody in the world knows it. And there are always going to be people who try to make money by slamming other people and by, you know, creating all kinds of stuff that doesn't really get us anywhere.
INSKEEP: Do you think you add to that sometimes?
O'REILLY: You know, I try not to do it personally. I think that we bring a robust debate to the nation every night. I think we try to stay away from the personal stuff. We try to back up our opinions with facts. So, yeah. I mean, you can accuse me of anything you want, but, you know, I'm trying to do the right thing.
INSKEEP: What do you think when you hear people complain about the quality, not just in the media, but of political discourse today, that it's departed from reality, for example?
O'REILLY: Well, I mean, if it's departed from reality, then we have to isolate the people who are doing that. President Obama was right in his Arizona speech, that he said, look, you know, you can't enflame to the point where you hate each other. That's not what America is supposed to be. But what can he do? I don't see him, his rhetoric, he doesn't do that. I don't see personal attacks coming from Mr. Obama.
But some of his acolytes, they just can't help themselves. And on the other side, there are people who just hate him, and everything he does is bad. And I criticize those people just as much.
For his part, George W. Bush felt that the media's "first draft of history" on his time in office was far too angry and overwrought, casting him as a dictator who was far too stupid to earn two Ivy League degrees. Then came the weird new-civil-war stuff:
INSKEEP: You're also writing, Bill O'Reilly, about a period in history where I think it's fair to say the political system broke. There was this great issue facing the country. They tried to deal with it. They couldn't deal with it over time, and in the end, it led to a war and hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Do you wonder if the political system is breaking now?
O'REILLY: Well, I don't think it's breaking. I mean, I think we have a robust two-party system in the United States. We have a media that, while flawed and irresponsible in many levels, does keep an eye on what's going on, and that the people really get both sides of the story and most Americans overwhelmingly love their country.
So I don't see any fracture along those lines. I do see that zealotry, probably, is way higher than it should be. Dishonesty in the media is almost at a scandalous level. But there's so much media now, with the PCs and all of that social network. There's so much, that I think Americans, if they really try and they think, they can get the real story.
By the end, O'Reilly was almost sunny about everything: "I think Abraham Lincoln would be proud of his country today. He would certainly be proud that it elected a man like Barack Obama of mixed race, certainly Lincoln would be proud of that. And I don't see it as dire as some other people see it. I'm fairly optimistic that if we can get this economic stuff under control, America will make a stunning comeback."