Barack Obama sat down to an interview with Fox News' Bill O'Reilly on Fox tonight and shockingly it looked like a TV interview. Though he was speaking with Democrats' most reviled host on their most disparaged network, no one Photoshopped his head onto Osama bin Laden's body or produced Jeremiah Wright from behind a secret panel.
Instead in the first of four segments designed to milk the interview Obama had a combative but respectful back-and-forth with O'Reilly, tonight on the subject of national security. O'Reilly asked first if Obama believed we are in a "war on terror," a kind of semantic loyalty oath to see if he would hedge on the term. "Absolutely," he said.
O'Reilly led him through questions on Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq, occasionally bickering with Obama ("You're not going to send ground troops [into Pakistan], and you know it!") or making a pronouncement without asking a question. Obama pressed his case that the war in Iraq had misdirected America's resources, saying that the surge had worked "beyond our wildest dreams" but placing that in the context of the cost of the preceding five years of the war and reminding O'Reilly that the Iraqis have not yet stepped up to self-governance. (And, in what was probably an intentional dig at McCain, making the point that he knew the distinction between Sunni and Shi'a.)
Obama's visit came in a campaign notable for candidates avoiding various media. Most Democratic candidates, including Obama, largely shunned Fox during the primaries. (Obama has gone on Fox News Sunday.) John McCain canceled on Larry King earlier this week to punish CNN for Campbell Brown's having dared to ask a McCain aide too many follow-up questions about Sarah Palin's foreign policy credentials. And Palin, thus far, has been avoiding all national media interviews, save one with People magazine.
Michael Wolff reports in the current Vanity Fair that Obama's rapprochement with Fox happened after an air-clearing meeting with Rupert Murdoch and Fox News chief Roger Ailes. And it's about time. For God's sake, if you think it's in America's interest to speak to international adversaries, you ought to be able to sit down with a guy whose TV show you don't like.
The Democratic argument against "legitimizing" Fox News by appearing was as ridiculous as McCain's snub of softballer King and Palin's residency in the Candidate Protection Program and politically counterproductive, to boot. Is Fox Karl Rove's new home? Fine. Did it flog the Wright story, call Michelle Obama "baby mama" and suggest a "terrorist fist bump"? Sure. Did O'Reilly get in a scuffle with an Obama staffer on a New Hampshire rope line? Hey, who hasn't? The fact remains that according to Pew Research over half of Fox News' audience members are Democrats or Independents. Their votes are legitimate, whether Fox News is or not.
And to continue to freeze out Fox would go against one of Obama's most consistent messages: that people are sick of red-vs.-blue America divisions and that we should be able to talk with people who disagree with us. In that sense, Obama made his strongest argument simply by showing up.
O'Reilly at least gave Obama props for that. In typical O'Reillian fashion, the host had two analysts on immediately after the segment, essentially to assess how well he had interviewed Obama (verdict: great!), and O'Reilly praised him for coming onto the show. "He's a tough guy, Obama ... I looked at him eye to eye he's not a wimpy guy."
Obama, after all, had stared down Papa Bear. And in the No-Spin Zone, that's the greatest leadership credential of all.