Killing O’Reilly’s Reagan

A lot of people have been asking me for my opinion about Bill O’Reilly’s latest co-authored potboiler, Killing Reagan. To call it bovine excrement would be an insult to hoofed animals of all species. Today in the Washington Post, Craig Shirley, Kiron Skinner, Paul Kengor, and yours truly have written an article that details some of the massive defects with O’Reilly’s parallel universe. (The four of us have published a total of 19 books about Reagan, and we teamed up in the Post two years ago over the gross distortions of Reagan in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”) It’s a newspaper article, so it only scratches the surface. But I can summarize it even shorter: the book is riddled with factual errors, and the interpretative framework O’Reilly brings to the Reagan story is wrong, too.

Perhaps Reagan’s admirers should be flattered that Reagan’s detractors now have to resort to outright fiction since the kind of stereotypes in Killing Reagan have been long debunked by the actual record. Start with the title, which is obviously meant to build upon O’Reilly’s previous sensationalized accounts of the deaths of world historical figures including Jesus, Lincoln, Kennedy, and George Patton. Except—Reagan wasn’t killed. This inconvenient fact is probably what induced O’Reilly to run with the narrative that Reagan was figuratively “killed” by the attempted assassination in 1981 that, he argues, accelerated Reagan’s Alzheimers.

Historical fiction can be an imaginative way of exploring great historical characters and bringing events to life beyond the documentary evidence and witness accounts. The best such novels, like Michael Shaara’s classic about the Battle of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels, offer plausible and compelling interpretations that deepen our appreciation of the subjects, sometimes in profoundly moving ways. Likewise another great example is William Safire’s massive 1987 novel, Freedom: A Novel of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, which brings to life and deepens our understanding of salient aspects of Lincoln and his cabinet in the first two years of the Civil War. Safire notably included 120 pages of source notes and lengthy explanations for his dramatic inventions. O’Reilly offers only two-and-a-half pages of endnotes, and about a dozen sources. Killing Reagan appears to have been written with malice of forethought. The pattern of factual errors all run in one direction.

I notice that O’Reilly has been backtracking a bit from the slant of the book, offering backhanded praise of Reagan in his interviews. I suspect he loves the adverse publicity, and it no doubt is helping sales.

But it really ought to be said plainly that O’Reilly is no conservative. He is, at best, a populist, but most likely just a sheer opportunist. He’s a skilled broadcaster, no doubt, and as he does big ratings for Fox I’m sure they don’t much care that he’s faking it. I have little doubt that if MSNBC offered to double his salary, he’d jump over in a red-hot minute and start channeling Rachel Madcow.

My one and only contact with the O’Reilly Factor occurred about ten years ago or more, when a producer called me out of the blue to see about whether I’d be a good guest for a segment on the show about why gasoline prices were spiking. The producer told me O’Reilly thought it was the result of market manipulation by big oil. This is the view that Barbra Boxer takes, and it has been repeatedly investigated since the 1970s at the federal and state level, and it is always debunked. I patiently explained, over the course of three phone calls, why this idea was nonsense, and that I’d happily explain why on the show.

Producer: “Well, Bill really wants someone who will say its manipulation by Big Oil.”

Me: “Sounds to me that you’re not looking for an expert with a point of view, but a character actor to provide a foil for Bill.”

Producer: [Long pause.] “We’ll get back to you.”

They never did.

Meanwhile, the next day I had a nearly hour-long, supremely intelligent conversation about gas prices and general energy topics with a producer from a different show. It was The Daily Show. I didn’t get on that show either, but then they didn’t run the segment they seemed to be developing when they called me. I think I may have persuaded the producer that they were on the wrong track. The contrast between the seriousness of a comedy show next to the schlock of a supposedly serious news show was striking. I understand why Fox News keeps O’Reilly around, but he really is an embarrassment. Best to spit him out of your spin cycle.