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Tough Talker

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As a mischief-making teen, Bill O’Reilly once taped an alarm clock to a tree outside the house of a killjoy neighbor and set it for 4 a.m. “It was the loudest thing in the world,” O’Reilly recalls with a grin. “All the lights went on in the house, and [the neighbor] ran out with his flashlight, but he couldn’t find it.”

At least now, O’Reilly comes with a mute button. But fans who love—or love to hate—the ultra-opinionated, pundit-pummeling FOX News Channel host like him loudmouthed. Last month, his four-year-old weeknight news talk show, The O’Reilly Factor, drew more viewers than CNN’s popular Larry King Live among households that receive both networks. And O’Reilly, 51, reigns in print as well: His book The O’Reilly Factor: The Good, the Bad, and the Completely Ridiculous in American Life has been a No. 1 New York Times bestseller for four weeks. “Most Americans feel they don’t have a voice in the media,” says O’Reilly. “You have the elite guys running the show; they don’t represent the folks. I try to ask the questions the people would ask.”

He has all the answers, too. In his book O’Reilly sounds off on politics (he’s no fan of Bill Clinton or the tax system), celebrities (he deems Martha Stewart “a first-rate con artist”), even onion-flavored potato chips (“You could aim a flame-thrower into your mouth and still not exorcise the taste”). His outlook, he says, grows out of his working-class, Irish Catholic roots. Some brand him a right-winger, but he insists he is a “populist reporter.”

If not always a popular one. “He’s an empty-headed blowhard,” says Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales, who calls O’Reilly’s commentary “shallow and knee-jerk.” On the air O’Reilly freely interrupts interviewees between tough questions. He left George W. Bush stammering when he asked him how he could reconcile capital punishment with the teachings of Jesus. (“I’m not so sure he addressed the death penalty itself in the New Testament,” Bush finally offered.) O’Reilly claims the guests he riled the most are Tom Selleck and Susan Sarandon. Selleck got steamed, O’Reilly says, when he interviewed a paparazzo who had harassed the actor, Sarandon when he said anti-police-brutality protests she had taken part in “demonize the police.” He even criticized his own network’s election-eve coverage. Says friend and former boss Peter Jennings: “Bill is an equal-opportunity provocateur.”

And always has been. Growing up in suburban Levittown, N.Y., he “needed a strong hand even when he was a little fellow,” says mother Ann, 78, a retired physical therapist. (Father Bill Sr., an accountant, died in 1986.) When not making mischief, young Bill excelled at sports. After majoring in history at Poughkeepsie, N.Y.’s Marist College, he played semipro baseball for two seasons and taught high school in a tough area near Miami. At 6’4″, he had no problems keeping order, he says: “I’m too big and too mean-looking.”

He then set his sights on journalism. Earning a master’s degree at Boston University, he took TV reporting jobs around the country before becoming an ABC News correspondent, then anchor of Inside Edition from 1989 to 1995. He left to get a master’s in public administration at Harvard, then signed on with FOX.

O’Reilly has mused about challenging Hillary Clinton for the Senate in 2006—but for now the chief females in his life are his wife and daughter. In 1992, at age 43, he met Maureen McPhilmy, then 26, at a restaurant. “We spent the whole night verbally sparring,” says Maureen, who nevertheless agreed to a date. The two wed in 1996 and now share a modest four-bedroom house on New York’s Long Island. Maureen, a public relations executive, insists that her husband does have a softer side: A disco fan, he sings “Shake Your Booty” to 20-month-old daughter Madeline and even watches Barney on TV. “I once asked him what surprised him most about fatherhood,” says Maureen, “and he answered how much patience he had with Madeline.”

If not with anyone else—which is why Maureen plants impatiens around the yard: “That’s the patron flower of the O’Reilly household.”

Samantha Miller

Debbie Seaman on Long Island