Of all the surreal things I’ve seen during Super Bowl telecasts in my lifetime — the wardrobe malfunction, Left Shark, whatever in the world they’re doing to poor Mr. Peanut — I’m not sure anything feels more discordant with the way we live today than the fact that Bill O’Reilly interviewed President Barack Obama before two Super Bowls.
Yep, they did it twice. The first was in 2011, when Mr. O’Reilly joked that he needed to leave before Jennifer Lopez showed up for the White House Super Bowl party. (He also asked Mr. Obama if it disturbed him “that so many people hate you.”) They chatted again in 2014, a more contentious discussion in which Mr. O’Reilly grilled the president over a range of topics like the Benghazi attacks and why the president didn’t fire Kathleen Sebelius, the former secretary of health and human services, for the flawed opening of the Obamacare website.
It nevertheless ended with Mr. O’Reilly saying, “I think your heart is in the right place,” and then cheerfully asking Mr. Obama who he thought would win the game. Watching the interviews today, even with Mr. O’Reilly going on about Benghazi and potential “corruption” at the I.R.S., feels like correspondence from another galaxy.
This Sunday afternoon, before the San Francisco 49ers take on the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV, President Trump will speak with Sean Hannity on Fox, the network airing the Super Bowl. As you might suspect, this interview will be a much more insular enterprise. Mr. Trump speaks regularly with Mr. Hannity, who is seen as an informal but influential adviser, and Mr. Hannity has been in return a staunch, unyielding defender of the president.
It will mark the third time Mr. Trump will do the traditional interview before America’s annual television holiday; he spoke to Mr. O’Reilly in 2017, took 2018 off because the game was aired on NBC and famously told Margaret Brennan of CBS that he wouldn’t allow his son Barron to play football because it’s “really tough” and “a dangerous sport.”
This year’s Super Bowl comes at an amazing moment, a confluence of political circumstances and events that give this particular bully pulpit a power and a spotlight it hasn’t had in years. With impeachment, the Iowa caucuses and the State of the Union all on deck, Mr. Trump will have a stage, and a famously pliant interviewer, that is unparalleled in American culture. It is entirely possible, even likely, that he’s going to have this open platform in front of the country the very weekend he’s acquitted for impeachment. He couldn’t ask for a more ideal year for it to be Fox’s turn to air the game.
It wasn’t long ago that the N.F.L. owners were terrified of Mr. Trump, and with good reason: He called the players kneeling to protest social injustice and police brutality “sons of bitches” and said that owners should “fire” the players and drag them off the field, lighting a fire to an already combustible situation with the league. But the N.F.L., like so many Republican politicians, has largely caved to Mr. Trump’s desires.
And Mr. Hannity is, suffice it to say, unlikely to turn up much heat on the president. It’s worth noting that friendly, back-scratching interviews are much more in the spirit of this tradition — like the one before the “Super Bowl Shuffle” Chicago Bears’ win in 1986 in Super Bowl XX, in which Tom Brokaw asked Ronald Reagan about his own playing career. (The year before, Reagan did the coin flip from the White House.)
It didn’t become a real tradition until Mr. Obama decided to do one every year, with non-sports journalists like Scott Pelley of CBS and Savannah Guthrie of NBC. Mr. O’Reilly brought a more combative, feet-to-the-fire style to his, but still, the general tone of both his interviews was friendly, even cordial, and the subtext was, “Let’s all try to come together on the Super Bowl.”
It’s hard to imagine any sort of “come together” moment in a Trump-Hannity interview. Still, it could be a perfect time for Mr. Trump to have a puff piece interview on national television, the perfect excuse for one and Mr. Hannity the perfect host.
The N.F.L. is experiencing one of its most scandal-free years in recent memory. In the time since the league came under attack from the president, it has banned kneeling before games and mostly eluded controversy. The man who hated the N.F.L. for not letting him buy the Bills and calling the league “soft” is now happily going on the pregame show to their biggest event. As it turns out, maybe the N.F.L. and Mr. Trump need each other after all.
But more than anything, the Super Bowl is a big honking television production, and whatever else you want to say about Mr. Trump, he certainly understands the power of that medium. In many ways, his interviews, and Mr. Obama’s before him, illustrate once again just what is so different about each of them. Mr. Obama did the pre-Super Bowl interviews because he thought it would be a way to unite an increasingly dividing nation, even showing that he was willing to sit down with a supposed nemesis like Mr. O’Reilly.
But Mr. Trump, when it comes to television, is much more cynical, cunning and savvier than that. Mr. Trump sees the Super Bowl hype as a way to sit down with his friendliest interviewer and speak directly to a massive audience at a time of maximum peril — and maximum opportunity.
Mr. Obama may have been right to sit down with Mr. O’Reilly. But he opened the door to Mr. Trump, in 2020, getting exactly what he covets: unfettered airtime to the whole country.
If Mr. Hannity asks Mr. Trump who he thinks is going to win, San Francisco or Kansas City, I don’t expect an honest answer; I just expect some sort of San Francisco-Nancy Pelosi crack.
It makes you downright miss Left Shark.
Will Leitch is a contributing editor at New York magazine, a columnist for MLB.com and the founder of Deadspin.
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