Obama chats with O’Reilly

Times Staff Writer

In a much-anticipated interview with conservative nemesis Bill O’Reilly, Sen. Barack Obama said Thursday that the troop surge in Iraq had “succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated” and “beyond our wildest dreams.”

But despite expressing his most positive assessment of a military buildup he opposed, the Democratic presidential candidate made no concession on what he said is the more crucial issue of Iraq’s political stability.

“The Iraqis still haven’t taken responsibility,” Obama said during the seven-minute segment on Fox News’ “O’Reilly Factor,” an interview the talk-show host had sought for months. “And we still don’t have that kind of political reconciliation.”


O’Reilly alternately praised Obama and poked at him, as the Democrat attempted to reach a more conservative audience while John McCain accepted the Republican Party’s nomination.

“We wanted to speak to as many voters as we could on a night when we were in the midst of a lot of Republican attacks,” said Obama spokesman Bill Burton.

“I think there are people who have yet to make up their mind who watch Fox and all the channels.”

Obama emphasized that he recognized the threat of Islamic terrorists -- a view his opponents have questioned -- and would not hesitate to use military force when needed. “Al Qaeda, the Taliban, a whole host of networks that are bent on attacking America who have a distorted ideology, who have perverted the faith of Islam. And so we have to go after them,” he said.

O’Reilly pushed hard for Obama to specify what military action he would take if Iran obtained a nuclear weapon, but the candidate said it would be inappropriate for any potential president to tip his hand.

“I would not take the military option off the table and . . . I will never hesitate to use our military force in order to protect the homeland and United States interests,” he said.

O’Reilly made sure his own positions got almost as much airtime as Obama’s.

“I think history will show [Iraq] is the wrong battlefield, and I think that you were perspicacious in your original assessment of the battlefield,” the host complimented Obama. “I think you were desperately wrong on the surge, and I think you should admit it to the nation.”

Obama declined to do that, while acknowledging tremendous advances that he linked to the military buildup and to other factors, such as the uprising of U.S.-allied Sunni Arab sheiks and their followers against Al Qaeda.

Although he could not goad Obama into more provocative or specific answers, and at one point said the Democrat “bloviated” in one attack on McCain, he joked that he would join Obama in trying to recover American tax dollars spent in Iraq.

The tough-talking host also offered some praise at the conclusion of the interview.

When one of his guests said Obama was not a “terror warrior,” O’Reilly didn’t disagree. But he added: “I looked at him eye to eye. And he is not a wimp. He is not a wimpy guy.”

After months of putting O’Reilly off, Obama’s staff called Fox this week to say it would offer the host an interview at a power plant the candidate was touring in York, Pa.

Despite the relatively cordial tone Thursday, O’Reilly has not always been courteous as he pushed relentlessly for Obama to fulfill a January promise to appear on his program.

He accused Obama of not wanting to answer tough questions and told his viewers, “We don’t know Obama.”

At a rally just before the New Hampshire primary in January, O’Reilly accused an Obama aide of blocking his film crew. He tried to shove the aide out of the way and yelled angrily.

O’Reilly later attacked Obama’s ties to his controversial onetime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. He wondered how the Democrat could expose his two young daughters to the minister’s harangues.

Obama aide Burton said it was never a question of whether the interview would be conducted but when. Thursday’s taping allowed an airing less than two hours before McCain took the stage in St. Paul, Minn.

Early in the presidential race, O’Reilly showed less interest in Obama.

Although he spent considerable time analyzing the race, the host was well wide of the mark in October: Asked on ABC’s “Good Morning America” if Obama had “another round in him” in the election, O’Reilly assured Diane Sawyer: “Of course not! . . . This is ridiculous.”