Press Box

The Mystery of the Departing Guests

Three weeks ago, writing about reverse snobbery, I took up the case of Fox News talk show host Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly had told Newsweek that two people left a hoity-toity Washington dinner party rather than mix with a working-class guy like him. I asserted, although I was not there, that this could not have happened. I also asserted, based on O’Reilly’s own description of his upbringing in his best-selling book–Levittown; father an accountant who commuted to Manhattan; income a pre-inflation $35,000 a year–that he was actually middle-class.

O’Reilly had a cow. He denounced me on his show as a liar and as a coward for not daring to come and repeat my aspersions on the air. (And why, other than cowardice, would anyone turn down a chance to be on television? The producer who called with this alluring invitation was told that I was on vacation, but O’Reilly saw through all that.)

So on Tuesday, I went on his show. He called me a liar and a coward again. “You’re telling me that I didn’t have a modest upbringing?” he raged. “That’s the biggest bunk I ever heard in my life.” He accused me of childhood affluence. (“That’s the truth. I had little, you had a lot. I don’t care.”) He said that I had no right to call him “middle-class” without personally visiting his mother’s house in Levittown. But, “You’re not invited to dinner because I would never eat with you.”

All in all, a fairly dramatic illustration of my thesis that reverse snobbery is a more powerful social force than snobbery of the traditional sort.

But what about the mysterious departing guests? With a flourish, O’Reilly produced what he described as a letter from “the woman who invited me to the dinner party,” in which she wrote, “When so-and-so and so-and-so walked out, I was amazed. You were right, you had warned me.” I responded that this proved nothing, since the point of the anecdote–his point, as well as mine–was not about whether two people had left this party but about why they had done so. O’Reilly spurned repeated opportunities to engage this argument, although I wouldn’t assume that cowardice is the reason. Perhaps he is hard of hearing.

Seeking closure, and curious what O’Reilly might have “warned” her of (“I must warn you, ma’am, that people invariably flee the room when I walk in because I’m from Levittown”), on Wednesday I called the hostess of the party, who said she never wrote such a letter. Apparently, “the woman who invited me” refers not to the hostess but to O’Reilly’s own date for the evening, whom O’Reilly understandably does not wish to embarrass by naming. (And what a spectacular act of noblesse oblige on her part to escort the lowly Levittowner around Washington on Inauguration Day!)

My investigators were able to track her down, however. As of this writing, the poor woman has not responded to my phone call and fax. If I were Bill O’Reilly, I would naturally assume that she must be another coward. Join the club! As a weak, woolly liberal, though, I allow the possibility of any number of reasons or no reason at all. Meanwhile, my investigators have obtained more information about this party–including the guest list. Several data points stand out:

  • This was not a sit-down dinner, but rather a crowded buffet scene with seating at random. If one were sufficiently paranoid, one might easily misinterpret a decision to go get seconds on that chicken hash as a deliberate insult to the municipality of Levittown.

  • Investigators spoke to at least one (i.e., one) of the people assigned to guard the door, who saw no one leaving in anything resembling a huff. At least two (i.e., two) other people involved in staging the party neither saw nor heard of any such incident.

  • Close examination of the guest list reveals many other guests with backgrounds more humble than Bill O’Reilly’s. Yes, even more humble than an accountant’s son from Levittown. We can only hope that they didn’t take offense when O’Reilly himself departed.