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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Our next guest is one of the most controversial journalists and commentators in America, and that's how he describes himself.

(Soundbite of TV show "The O'Reilly Factor")

Mr. BILL O'REILLY (Host, "The O'Reilly Factor"): Hi, I'm Bill O'Reilly. Thank you for watching us tonight. The culture war erupts over Christmas. That is the subject of this evening's talking points...

MONTAGNE: That would be Bill O'Reilly on a recent show. He is well-known, of course, for his Fox News cable show, "The O'Reilly Factor," and his daily radio show. This morning we're going to learn a bit more about what made O'Reilly, O'Reilly. His latest book is a memoir called "A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity." And Bill O'Reilly joins us to talk about it. Welcome to the program.

Mr. O'REILLY: Thanks, Renee. I appreciate you having me in.

MONTAGNE: So you got your title from a nun who sized you up correctly, you would say, in the third grade.

Mr. O'REILLY: That's right. I was misbehaving in the back of the room, and she ran down the aisle and said, "William, you bold, fresh piece of humanity," and whacked me on the back of the hand with a little ruler. So that made an impression. And now the sister wants royalties from the book, because it's a big bestseller, so (unintelligible) little Jack over there.

MONTAGNE: Well, they could do that in those days, right? They could whack you on the back of the hand or the back of the head.

Mr. O'REILLY: Oh, you bet. In Catholic private schools, they could work you over pretty good. And then you got worked over at home if your parents found out about it. So it was double jeopardy. But there's a purpose to this story, Renee. And I want all your listeners to understand that the reason I wrote the book was not just to tell funny stories - and I think they are entertaining on their own - but to get people to realize why I believe what I believe.

Everybody knows what I believe, because I'm a big bloviator. But they don't know why - how it was formed. And Catholic schools and my parents and my teaching experiences - because I was a high school teacher - that all added up and brought us to where we are today, for good or ill.

MONTAGNE: What was it in your years of Catholic schools that led you to think, as you write, that life is a constant struggle between good and evil?

Mr. O'REILLY: Well, that's the theme of Catholic school, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Well, I just interviewed...

Mr. O'REILLY: That's the theme!

MONTAGNE: Wait, wait, wait. I just interviewed playwright John Patrick Shanley this same week.

Mr. O'REILLY: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Who had the same upbringing you had, same years - born the same year in the Bronx. He's out with a movie this week, set in the world that he was raised in. It's called "Doubt," and it's all about doubt.

Mr. O'REILLY: Yeah, I know all about Shanley, but...

MONTAGNE: So?

Mr. O'REILLY: It's safe to say that Shanley and I see the world differently.

MONTAGNE: Exactly.

Mr. O'REILLY: And Catholic school - I don't know how it is today, but back when I was there, it was, look, there's the devil and there's God. And there's good and there's evil. And you have to choose good, or we, the nuns, will make it very difficult for you. That was the theme every single day. Good-evil, you choose good. That's why the nuns wear habits. That's why we had religion class the first subject every day. It was all about good and evil, good and evil, the struggle between good and evil. And anybody who went to Catholic school who didn't get that, you know, was either in a coma or didn't want to get it, because that was the theme in every grade. And I write about it very vividly in "Bold Fresh." I quote it.

MONTAGNE: But you say the thing about fighting evil, and I'm quoting you, is that "some folks think I'm the evil guy."

Mr. O'REILLY: Sure, I mean anybody who puts themselves on the line. You know, some people thought Jesus was evil and nailed him to the cross.

MONTAGNE: Oh, you're not comparing yourself to Jesus.

Mr. O'REILLY: No, but I'm giving you an analogy that's vivid.

MONTAGNE: All right.

Mr. O'REILLY: All right? So any controversial person, anyone who tries to accomplish things on this earth will alienate people. And people will say they're evil - anyone who does that.

MONTAGNE: I want you to read a bit of the book. It's page 32. It's early in your career as a young thug. But, you know, there's a section in the book where you have yet to enter parochial school. It's kindergarten.

Mr. O'REILLY: OK.

(Soundbite of memoir "A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity") MONTAGNE: So, what, you figured out...

Mr. O'REILLY: Well, it was self-reliant play very early on in my Levittown upbringing on Long Island, New York. So today kids are coddled. And in the '50s and early '60s, it was, look, you're a kid, you go out, you take your lumps, you come home. And the self-reliance that I had to experience stayed with me forever.

MONTAGNE: But you write of your father - there's a certain admiration because he was blunt and he was tough. But you write, and I'm going to quote you here, that "he was a good man afraid to stand up."

Mr. O'REILLY: Yeah, because of the Depression, you know. People, older listeners will understand this. When you are raised in a childhood where every day could bring, I mean, disaster. When you see people standing in line for food, when you see desperation, this makes a very big impression on you. So my father was afraid. He was a tough guy, a big, tough guy. But he didn't want to take any chances because he always felt that Armageddon was right around the corner.

MONTAGNE: Although, when I was growing up and my dad was a Marine, parents drove the same old car...

Mr. O'REILLY: Right.

MONTAGNE: Studebakers for years. Never in my memory did my parents go to a restaurant, or certainly not take us kids. We thought of ourselves as firmly middle class. Your dad was college educated, white-collar job, an accountant. Why do you think of your upbringing as working class?

Mr. O'REILLY: Well, because it was. I mean, we lived in Levittown. Have you ever been there?

MONTAGNE: I haven't, actually.

Mr. O'REILLY: OK. Well, all you got to do is take a little ride out to Long Island and check it out. From what you just told me, my background is similar to yours, but I didn't think that I was poor. I thought that I was a middle-class guy too, because everybody in the neighborhood was. But, you know, when we went on vacation one time when I was 14 years old - I write about this in "Bold Fresh" as well - we took the bus to Florida. I never got on a plane until I was 17. So, you know, if this isn't a working-class background, nothing is.

MONTAGNE: OK. So growing up in Levittown, Long Island, poor middle-class, you write in this book that President Bush has made some major mistakes because of what you call the Rich Guy Syndrome.

Mr. O'REILLY: Right. The Rich Guy Syndrome is it's always going to work out because it always has worked out, because we have money. So you get in trouble, you buy your way out. There's a difficulty, you get a tutor. You want to play a certain sport, you go to the sport camp during the summer. So when Bush ran into trouble in Iraq and later on in the economy, he didn't act with the urgency that perhaps a working-class president would have. Maybe a Barack Obama will. I hope he will.

He kind of sat back and said, you know, everything's going to work out. Well, it didn't work out. And in the process of figuring out what went wrong, it took way, way too much time. And a lot of people got hurt. So the Rich Kid Syndrome is, hey, you know, I don't really have to break my back that much because somehow things are always going to come out right because they always have.

MONTAGNE: What about the president America is about to inaugurate? You've sparred with him on your show as a candidate, Barack Obama. He's named much of his Cabinet. What's your quick take?

Mr. O'REILLY: He's doing all right, I mean, but, you know, the jury is entirely out on Barack Obama. He's really up against it. He's got very complicated problems to deal with. So far his - except for this Holder, this attorney general, nobody can figure that out - appointments have been pretty solid. But, you know, the rubber meets the road in a few weeks.

MONTAGNE: Bill O'Reilly, thank you very much.

Mr. O'REILLY: All right, Renee. It was a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Bill O'Reilly's memoir is called "A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity." And on Friday we'll hear how writer John Patrick Shanley's tough Irish Catholic childhood led him away from certainty to doubt. It's NPR News.

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