Get Thee to Harlem

I am thinking of having the book party for the paperback edition of my new book, The Man Who Would Not Shut Up: The Rise of Bill O'Reilly at Sylvia's, uptown, in Harlem. And, of course, I will be inviting Bill and his good friends Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and the other folks who brought down Don Imus. The only problem is I will probably need help controlling the crowds.

As the world's leading O'Reillyologist, a credential based on my having had 29 interviews with the man for the biography, it also has been suggested that I am the most qualified to explain his latest example of bizarre behavior.

The furor created by his attempt at being a restaurant critic -- saying that he "couldn't get over the fact that was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant or any other restaurant in New York City even though its run by blacks, primarily black patronship" -- is no surprise. He has a tendency to put his foot where food is supposed to go.

I guess he expected to find a restaurant filled with rappers who would pull a gun on whitie because he wasn't uttering the Mf-er word when asking for a M-fer ice tea.

His stupidity is understandable. It was so '60s. Once again he was showing that he really was a populist, in the sense that he was so like the base of his audience, the blue-collar folks just like him who also don't know much about how "the other folks" might be living.

They were the words out of the mouth of somebody who grew up in the sheltered environment of the white ghetto of Levittown, N.Y. They had no black families in the 1950's, when the O'Reilly's moved in, thanks to the Levitt's early decision not to sell to Negroes.

In his developmental period, he never strayed very far in his thinking or in cuisine. He ate what he called his mother's Yankee Stadium -- style food. Tuna. Hot dogs and beans. Spaghetti. He was not encouraged as a child to experiment in the way of trying new things. "You'll eat the meatloaf and shut up," explained his tyrannical father.

They didn't do restaurants often during his childhood. Once a week it was always Savini's in East Meadow. He wasn't allowed to order anything fancy, like veal. It was a dollar and a half more. "You'll eat the spaghetti and shut up, " his father explained.

His remarks today about Sylvia's show he is not exactly one of those New York gourmets.

"I was never brought up with any black guys," O'Reilly told me about what he called " the race relations deal." "I went to all-white schools. My neighborhood was Jewish, Irish, Italian. There were a few black guys on my Marist college football teams, but they were middle class guys, not really ghetto guys."

His first contact with African-Americans was playing baseball. What O'Reilly wanted to be when he grew up was Tom Seaver, not Edward R. Murrow.

At 19, O'Reilly was pitching for a semipro team, the New York Monarchs. He was the only white guy on the team. "They were the best ballplayers I've ever seen," O'Reilly said, "Unfortunately, half of them were heroin addicts. But they were still great ballplayers. I mean, by the fourth inning the captain would be running off. 'I gotta headache.'"

O'Reilly was known as "white boy." "White boy, you better get the ball over the plate. I gotta get out of here." I mean, I was more afraid of my team than the opposing team. These were hard-core ghetto guys. But they were so funny.

We'd sit in the dugout and the way they would heckle the other teams, especially if the other was white. They'd try imitating the walk of the white guys and saying polite things, like 'Oh, how are you.'"

His team was all about O'Reilly's age. "Twenty?" they would say when he answered their question about his age. "My kids are older than you, motherfucker." "But they kind of liked me," O'Reilly recalled, seeing him as a curiosity. "They'd be saying, 'Don't be looking at my woman." I never had so many laughs in my life."

He hasn't kept in touch with his former teammates, as he explained in the book "They're all in jail. I mean, they were a tough crew."

No, I don't think O'Reilly is a racist. He is, however, an oaf, one of those unsophisticated guys who are slow in discovering the world outside the old neighborhood. He still lives a cloistered life not far from the block he grew up in Nassau County. He isn't one of the broadcasting men about town in New York, like Rush Limbaugh who hangs out at 21. O'Reilly's idea of fine dining is still taking the family to Nathan's on Hempstead Turnpike.

What amazed me about the whole ridiculous episode is that he was taking out Al Sharpton or anybody to a restaurant. O'Reilly is one of the more awesomely frugal people in the history of TV journalism. Although he makes more than 50 million dollars a year, when he goes out to lunch with his childhood friends, he still makes them split the check.

One mitigating factor in the alarming meltdown aspect of the story is that he seemed to be putting the dinner at Sylvia's on the Fox News expense account. In the 29 interviews I had with O'Reilly we never once shared a meal.

None of this is meant as an apology for O'Reilly. It was just another one of his stupid remarks. As a nouveau restaurant critic, he was now in an area of what he thinks is a zone of expertise. The thing about O'Reilly is his certainty. With the power invested in him granted by God or the Good Lord Roger Ailes, whichever is greater, he can say whatever he wants on the cable news network. As it is writ, on his family escutcheon, "Often wrong, but never in doubt." (It sounds better in the original Gaelic)

These are my opinions. But what do I know? I only wrote "the definitive fair and balanced biography," as the left loony New York Times Sunday Book review put it so well.