Bill O’Reilly’s BU Days
The controversial talk show host recalls his journalistic genesis on Comm Ave
By his own admission, Bill O’Reilly is a champion bloviator.
In A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity (Broadway Books, 2009), excerpted here, the political commentator and host of television’s The O’Reilly Factor explains where that brash style comes from, offering a look at people and places that influenced him, including Boston University.
O’Reilly’s title is based on the words of his third grade teacher at St. Brigid’s, a nun who said in exasperation, “William, you are a bold, fresh piece of humanity.” She may have meant it as a reprimand, but O’Reilly (COM’75) took it as gospel.
Jessica Leving can be reached at email@example.com.
Standing your ground
Because I love that dirty water,
Oh, oh, Boston, you’re my home.
— The Standells, “Dirty Water”
To walk down Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue in the autumn of 1973 was to witness history unfolding. Hippies, college kids, booze heads, townies, and actual working people, blue-collar to the highest white-shoe professions, all intermingled daily. In the midst of this diversity they probably shared only one interest in common, and it was a really big deal: President Richard Nixon, long known as “Tricky Dick,” was in huge trouble. He might even go to prison. People talked about little else.
For a year, Washington Post investigative reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, relatively unknown at the time, had been chasing down leads in the Watergate story. Now, thanks largely to them, Nixon was on the ropes. As you can imagine, all of us journalism students at Boston University’s School of Public Communication closely followed every twist and turn. Almost every day there were new and exciting stories:
• October 10, Vice President Spiro Agnew quits. Days later, he’s indicted for federal income tax evasion. He would subsequently plead no contest and be convicted.
• October 20, Nixon orders Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was aggressively challenging Nixon’s dodges. Richardson refuses. Nixon fires him and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus. Robert Bork takes over and fires Cox. All hell is breaking loose around the country after this so-called Saturday night massacre.
• Impeachment talk heats up, and to think, just a year earlier Nixon had defeated South Dakota Senator George McGovern in a national landslide. He would resign the following August.
There simply was no better time to be studying journalism in America. I really lucked out. The divisive Vietnam War and the ensuing protests had dramatically changed the country, leading to the Age of Aquarius, where social liberalism blossomed. For example, in 1973 the Supreme Court by a vote of 7-2 affirmed Roe v. Wade as the law of the land; for the first time abortion was legal all across the USA. That never would have happened had the country not moved to the left so quickly.
But while the fetus could now be destroyed in the womb, convicted killers had been granted a reprieve, as the Supremes, a year earlier, had ruled the death penalty unconstitutional. The case, Furman v. Georgia, was a closely decided 5-4 vote. And as America continued its liberal march, there I was, your budding bold, fresh correspondent, right smack-dab in the middle of it.
But, as they say, let the peace/love buyer beware.
As the “power to the people” brigades reached the height of their influence, self-indulgence and arrogance were bringing many flower children crashing down. Crazy nonsense was all over the place. Violent Black Panthers were celebrated as good guys, while brave U.S. service people fighting for their country were labeled villains. Some awful things were “going down.” As Buffalo Springfield sang. For me, the Beatles best summed up the hazy Age of Aquarius atmosphere:
Picture yourself in a boat on a river,
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
That would be from “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” the song I mentioned in chapter one. Unfortunately, LSD and other drugs were everywhere at BU. Getting stoned was routine. Everybody was doing it. Everybody, that is, but me.
Continuing my antidrug posture, I adopted the same mode of behavior I had at Marist: total abstention from substances. By now, I actually hated drugs, because a couple of my Levittown friends had become hard-core addicts, and I witnessed their degeneration up close and personal. I saw them break the hearts of their mothers. I saw them steal from their fathers and friends. I witnessed their complete debasement and ultimately watched as they destroyed themselves. There was nothing I could do. One died in his 30s; the other went to prison.
Drinking, too — I couldn’t stand it. At a high school party, I watched as inebriated kids vomited all over my friend’s house. Myles’ parents had gone to Florida and foolishly left the 18-year-old in charge. Those bombed kids caused thousands of dollars of damage to the place and didn’t care a whit. Why? Because they were drunk out of their minds, that’s why.
As I’ve said before, I’ve never been intoxicated or taken any illegal drug, including marijuana. I know some people think this is weird, but I am proud of it. I made a decision: I did not want to be under the influence of anything other than my own dubious personality. Ever.
So I stood my ground at Boston University and lost some social opportunities because of my antidrug position. So be it. I still had a great time, and I remember all of it. I never hurt anyone or destroyed anything while under the influence. I never vomited in the bushes or drove drunk. Good for me.
Still, I was often alone that year. While strobe lights streaked and bongs stoked up, I went to the movies. American Graffiti was my favorite. Where were you in 1962? Well, I was attending St. Brigid’s School, learning it wasn’t all about me; that’s where I was.
Truth be told, I liked my country better pre-Vietnam. It was more fun. The Aquarius deal was too confusing. I mean, John Lennon thought he was a walrus. What was that all about? Grace Slick wanted us to feed our heads. Great. But what happens when you overdose, Grace? Do you feel bad because you encouraged drug use? And Jim Morrison wanted to light our fires; remember that great song? Morrison wound up dead in a bathtub at age 27.
Where was Lesley Gore when I needed her? …
Upon reflection, I count my stand against the temptations of the time as another major turning point in my life. Instead of chasing Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” I concentrated on pursuing a career. While some other BU students delved into being dazed and confused on a daily basis, I was focused and determined. I was going to be the next Woodward or Bernstein, whichever one was better looking.
By the way, as with my religious beliefs, I did not openly criticize those who took up the stoned life unless they were very close to me. Then I’d try to persuade them back to sobriety. And to this day, I won’t lecture people about their personal behavior unless it harms another person. I have too much on my karmic rap sheer to be throwing stones at anyone else. Besides, people like Hunter S. Thompson made a good living in journalism actually using chemicals as a prop. But, as you may know, Thompson eventually killed himself, so maybe he’s not a great example.
Anyway, as 1974 unfolded, the dramatic action continued. President Ford eventually pardoned Nixon, probably dooming his own reelection chances. Ford also pardoned the Vietnam draft dodgers. One of them, Muhammad Ali, beat the fearsome George Foreman in a huge Africa prizefight. Happy Days debuted on TV, and Blazing Saddles was a hit at the movies.
But on the ground in Boston, it was all about race and busing. Embracing the liberal social policies of the day, a federal judge named Arthur Garrity had ordered South Boston High School to be integrated. To achieve that end, it was decided that scores of black students were to be forcibly bused into the all-white school from distant neighborhoods. South Boston was (and is to this day) one tough neighborhood, dominated by working-class Irish and Italians who are generally suspicious of outsiders and of authority in general. Back in ’74, Southie, as it is called, was entirely inhabited by white people, and most who lived there wanted it to stay that way.
So, after the judge proclaimed this busing order, blatant hatred took to the streets. There were threats and protests and major fear and loathing (Hunter S. Thompson’s signature phrase). Everybody knew that when the first buses rolled into Southie, anything could happen, and all of it would be bad.
Through sheer persistence and hard work, I had become a columnist for the Daily Free Press, BU’s student newspaper. That position gave me the latitude to cover whatever I wanted. So early in the morning on integration day, I rode the T (Boston’s tramway system) down to South Boston. It didn’t take long for a major story to unfold. Here’s how I described it in print:
By 7:50 a.m., they were all assembled. Names like Conroy, O’Brien, Leary, LaRosa, and Mosso. Plenty of red-haired people with light skin and blue eyes. Young women with acne-infested complexions and thick thighs. Tough-looking boys wearing beach hats and patches of thin facial hair that might one day be beards. Toothless old women were there too, their sunken faces reflecting a life that refused to allow them the luxury of growing old gracefully. And, of course, the priests were there, trying futilely to calm their flawed flock …
At 8:05, the first bus arrived. Small black faces peered dumbfounded from behind bus windows. “F— you, n—,” someone yelled. The obscene chorus swelled. A rock hit the bus. The children were led safely off the vehicle by police, their eyes showing bewilderment and fear. But their confusion had not yet turned to hatred.
Out in the street, mothers wheeling babies yelled the vilest obscenities. Six-year-old children stood next to them echoing the filthy idioms. One kid was especially agitated.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“You go to school?”
“Yeah, but I ain’t goin’ ’til the n—s clear out.”
At that point, the kid’s mother turned around.
“Don’t talk to him, Brian,” she said. “Don’t talk to anyone you don’t know. If they’re not from around here, don’t have anything to do with them.”
There was much more to my article, but you get the idea. The fact that I was witnessing history made a deep impression on me, and so did the unfairness of the situation. No American child should have been put in the position of those kids on the buses; both sides were desperately wrong. I was saddened that my people, the Irish, acted so hatefully toward innocent children. I was also furious that the federal system could not have found a better way to integrate schools. No sane government uses kids as canon fodder in an ideological war.
From that day on, I knew for certain that journalism would be my profession …
Throughout that fall at BU, covering stories became a passion for me. I loved going places and seeing new things. I ran around Boston annoying the hell out of everyone, but bringing back good, crisp copy. In addition to the Free Press, I got stuff published in the Boston Phoenix and the Real Paper. Then, I recycled the articles into class assignments. Somehow, this worked out great. How could I get a bad grade if somebody had paid me for a piece and it ran on page two?
Without a doubt, my most enjoyable story that semester was a meeting with the infamous stripper Fanne Foxe, aka “the Argentine Firecracker.” This was huge because Ms. Fanne had become an international news sensation. At two in the morning on October 7, 1974, Democratic Congressman Wilbur Mills, the powerful Ways and Means Committee leader from Ohio, was stopped by U.S. Park Police officers in Washington, D.C., because his chauffeur was driving with the headlights off. Later, authorities determined that Mills was drunk as the proverbial skunk.
As cops approached Mills’ car that evening, a young woman leaped from the vehicle and ran into the nearby Tidal Basin, a swampy pool of water. Police chased her down and sent her to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for observation.
The woman’s name was Annabella Battistella, a 38-year-old striptease dancer from Argentina who performed under the name of Fanne Foxe, “the Argentine Firecracker.” This entire incident, of course, did not look good for the married Mills, and naturally, the press went wild, labeling Ms. Battistella the “Tidal Basin Bombshell.”
While Mills went into damage-control mode, saying that he and the bombshell were just “friends,” drinking buddies if you will, the resourceful Fanne went to work. Her agent immediately booked her on a cross-country strip tour, and one of the first stops was Boston.
Thank you, God.
On a cool November night, I ventured into Boston’s notorious Combat Zone, a vice-ridden area just north of Boston Common. There, I met Ms. Bombshell backstage at the Pilgrim Theatre, where she was preparing to take off her clothes for $3,000, a hefty one-night sum in 1974.
The woman was very nice to me and my photographer, Conn O’Neill, two young Irish guys just trying to get through school. In fact, the Foxette actually changed into her costume right before our eyes, displaying an admirable female form. Am I actually getting paid for this? I thought. The answer was no. But it was okay.
Under my byline, the following words appeared the next day in the Free Press:
Ms. Foxe spoke with a soft Ricky Ricardo accent while talking about the infamous Mills incident. She put it this way, “Meester Mills took four of us out for dinner, dancing, and champagne at a nightclub in Washington. His wife had a hurt foot so she didn’t come. I was sick with the flu and had been taking antibiotics, so after my fifth glass of champagne, I felt sick and dizzy.
“Normally, I don’t drink hard liquor, maybe a little brandy once in a while, but five glasses of champagne would never get me drunk. It was the combination of the champagne and antibiotics that made me dizzy.
“I don’t remember much else. I panicked when the police stopped us and ran out. I didn’t want to see the police. Meester Mills tried to stop me but my elbow hit his glasses and they broke, cutting his face. I got out of the car and, being dizzy, fell into the basin. That’s all that happened.”
Made sense to me. Like the Ghostbusters, I was ready to believe her …
Out in the audience, I grabbed a seat as far away from the clientele as possible. My assignment was to cover Fanne Foxe, not get knifed. Here’s how I summed up her performance:
Fanne whirls out onstage and in no time is down to her underwear. Like a jerk, I am wondering if she’s going to show everything. Not only does she show everything, but also — the way she moves it around — the everything seems to walk off the stage and come over to sit in your lap. The crowd loves it.
After the everything has been shown… Fanne saunters around the stage bantering with the audience and throwing candy to the patrons. She asks one guy what kind of candy he wants.
“Whatever Wilbur Mills didn’t eat,” he screams.
Fanne laughs along with the rest of the politically aware audience, finishes her act, and bounces off the stage, everything still intact.
I guess you gotta make a living.
When my story appeared the next day, I thought it was a home run. But some of the feminists at the Free Press thought otherwise. The women’s movement was just getting started and, truthfully, I was not engaged. Nor did I pretend to be. My first priority was finding out if I had talent, if I could cut it in the media world, not trying to figure out Betty Friedan…
What I learned at Boston University firmly set me on the course I continue to this day. Amidst the chaos of Commonwealth Avenue, I found an occupation that I enjoyed, that was noble (at least back then), and that I was certain was my vocational destiny.
To this day, I keep these lessons close:
• Work hard.
• Keep a clear head.
• Don’t compromise when you know you’re right.
• Don’t fear authority.
• And definitely have a good time.
Published with permission from Bill O’Reilly.15 Comments