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O'Reilly and Bush: The Simple Life

Reported by Judy - September 27, 2004 -

Fox News is in hyper-hype mode all day today (Sept. 27) promoting Bill O'Reilly's interview with George Bush to be broadcast for three nights beginning tonight. The best parts of the interview may be not what Bush says, but how he says it and what that could reveal about his strategy in the upcoming debates.

Fox ran its usual ads about O'Reilly's show during Fox and Friends, but Fox and Friends co-hosts also devoted a couple minutes to a clip and brief discussion praising the upcoming shows.

The clip that Bush's Friends played shows O'Reilly asking Bush, "Why do you think some people get upset when you mention your faith vis a vis your job?" Bush's answer illustrates how he will deal with questions in the debates with John Kerry beginning on Thursday.

Bush answered: "I really mention my faith vis a vis my life. And I don't know, I don't know why people get upset with that. People, I'm asked the question, 'What does faith mean to me?' and it means strength and calm in the face of a storm. I do rely on prayer and I'm empowered by the fact, I'm empowered by the fact that people pray for me. I'm sustained by that, not empowered. I'm sustained by it. Sustained is a better word. I don't know why people object to somebody who is, when asked, says religion is important."

Co-host E.D. Hill was swept off her feet by Bush's answer, "Whoa, it is really, really good. You don't want to miss it, the next three nights on the O'Reilly Factor, the president. And by the way, we'll have Bill O'Reilly on tomorrow." Oh, be still, my beating heart.

Co-host Steve Doocy was similarly impressed, saying, "O'Reilly, who asks hard questions, asks would you put on a flight suit again and declare 'Mission accomplished' and the president replies, 'Absolutely.' So tune in, it looks terrific."

Leaving aside whether Bush's performance deserves such high praise, let's look at how Bush handled O'Reilly's question.

First of all (and most important), Bush didn't answer it. O'Reilly's question was about the presidency and religion and the obligations of a president of one faith leading a country with citizens of many faiths. The question was about drawing lines between the private and the public, the sacred and the legal, church and state. The question Bush actually answered was, "What does faith mean to you?" Ignoring the question that was asked allowed Bush to say whatever he thought would impress voters and to use a multi-purpose answer he already had prepared to suit any question remotely related to religion. Since Bush is expressing something personal to him, a viewer is less likely to get miffed and say he didn't answer the question and more likely to say, aw, isn't that inspiring.

Second, Bush repeats O'Reilly's question in a way that misstates it slightly to make his critics look anti-religious. He says at the end of his answer, "I don't know why people object to somebody who is, when asked, says religion is important." Again, that wasn't O'Reilly's question and it is not the criticism Democrats have raised against Bush's faith-based initiatives. Their main gripe is not that religion is important to Bush. It is that as president, Bush uses his own religion to set the agenda for a nation made up of people from many religions or no religion.

Third, Bush answers the question (or rather, his own question) in a way that says very little, namely, "I'm asked the question, 'What does faith mean to me?' and it means strength and calm in the face of a storm." That sounds less like religious faith and more like the line from the poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling: "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you ... you'll be a man, my son." Bush's reply is actually a very secular one.

His answer also shows how "me-based" his faith is, especially when he says, "I do rely on prayer and I'm empowered by the fact, I'm empowered by the fact that people pray for me. I'm sustained by that, not empowered. I'm sustained by it." George prays, people pray for George, George is empowered. Does George pray for others? Does George's faith require him to be of service to others? Does George's faith keep him humble even though he occupies the most powerful office in the world? What exactly does George's faith call on him to do? Apparently nothing, except be on the receiving end of prayers and empowerment.

Third, Bush answers "Absolutely!" when O'Reilly asks him the supposedly "hard" question concerning whether he would dress up like a fly-boy and land on the carrier deck to proclaim, "Mission Accomplished." This time, Bush answers the question by denying the obvious, but doing it with total conviction. In retrospect, the carrier stunt was foolish and Karl Rove knows it (and he probably told George that, too). Rather than admit a mistake, which George doesn't like to do, he turns the potential negative into a positive by a declaration that he would do the same stupid thing over again. People will love it because saying words like "Absolutely!" makes George look strong, it's a simple answer people can remember, and it recalls a joyous (but brief) moment that made people feel good. A word like "absolutely" also has a finality to it. Doocy didn't say if O'Reilly had a follow-up question, but such a simple answer certainly discourages meaningful follow-ups, where Bush could get into trouble by having to deviate from his script.

Overall, the clip was much more revealing than Bush's Friends thought it was. Of course, it reinforced their role as presidential cheerleaders. But it also revealed a lot about how Bush will approach Thursday's debate. He'll ignore the real question and answer one somehow related to it for which he has prepared an answer. His answer will say very little but will contain a feel-good platitude that will evoke an emotional rather than intellectual response from the viewer (viewers don't like to have to think too hard, after all), and he'll use black-and-white words like "absolutely" so that viewers are not unsettled by uncertainty.

In other words, "Keep it simple, stupid."