Posted By Norman Gasbarro on December 7, 2011
The recently published book on the Lincoln assassination, written by Bill O’Reilly, anchor of Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” and his co-author Martin Dugard, is generating a negative response in some quarters. The book is entitled Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever, Henry Holt & Company, 2011. The central event in the controversy seems to be a review of Killing Lincoln written by Edward Steers, which was published in North and South: The Official Magazine of the Civil War Society, in November and then re-published on a web site of the Lincoln assassination. Either in conjunction with this review, or independent of it, Rae Emerson, the deputy superintendent of Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park Service, conducted a study of the book and concluded that it was “sloppy with the facts and and slim on documentation.” As a result of the review, the book was banned from sale at the National Park site.
O’Reilly and Dugard’s book is presently on the New York Times non-fiction best seller list and apparently the controversy has done little to put a dent in its sales. Rather, questions should now be asked about National Park Service policies regarding what is sold in their on-site gift shops, how those policies are made and who is responsible for their implementation. Does it seem proper that the government should be banning books? In addition, Steers has opened himself up for criticism, because he appears to be using the supposedly objective review he wrote as a means of selling his own books on the assassination. Critics of Steers’ review essay could also correctly point out that he is guilty of some of the very things he accuses O’Reilly of doing.
There are no perfect books on the Lincoln assassination. Each book must be judged on what it is trying to accomplish. Books that purport to get every little detail “correct” should be well-documented and have interpretations that are fact-based. Where facts conflict, it is the responsibility of a true, professional historian to explain why one fact is chosen over another and to be able to defend that choice. Unfortunately, many books on the assassination are overburdened with facts selected to convey a particular point of view – at the expense of other facts which are “left out”, ignorantly or intentionally. Dismissing possible or actual critics by stating that “historians agree” is a sure warning that there is something there on which historians do not agree.
It is always refreshing when a new interpretation presents itself – sometimes with different facts – or, as in the case of Killing Lincoln, from a different perspective. Although Bill O’Reilly has a B.A. in history from Marist College – and he was once a history teacher – his advanced degrees from Boston College (broadcast journalism) and Harvard University (public administration) and his twelve years of experience in cable news – have added significant depth to his understanding of the present and the role history has played in the shaping of the present. What O’Reilly has done is to look at a variety of materials that are readily available – mostly how others have reported on and interpreted the assassination – and present them through his own eyes, and with a particular style – that is hopefully readable and will entice others to delve deeper. O’Reilly does not claim that he is writing a definitive historical work on the assassination nor does he claim to be a professional historian. He is first and foremost a commentator on current social, political, and economic issues – and on that, if ratings are an indicator, he is very successful.
Therefore, the criticism in this case that he got a few facts wrong, is inappropriate as the main point in a review – particularly when the review is done by an author who doesn’t always get his facts right. The question here should be whether the thesis is proven by what is presented in the book.
It is O’Reilly’s contention that we, as a people and nation, are currently in a leadership crisis, and we should look to the past for guidance. This O’Reilly quote, from Newsweek, says it in his words: “In this time when we’re struggling for leadership—and whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you know that we are struggling with leadership in America—we need to go back to a guy like Abraham Lincoln and understand what made him great.” From the dust jacket, we learn that the book features “some of history’s most remarkable figures,” including John Wilkes Booth, who is referred to as an “impenitent racist”. The book is intended to be “history that reads like a thriller.”
In an opening note, O’Reilly states what he hopes the reader get out of the book:
The story you are about to read is true and truly shocking…. The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, only days after the end of the war, was a terrible tragedy. Much has been speculated about the events leading up to the murder and immediately afterward, but few people know what really happened…. The ferocious assassination plan itself still has elements that have not been clarified…. There are layers of proven conspiracy and alleged conspiracy that will disturb you…. The experience, I believe, will advance your understanding of our country, and how Lincoln’s murder changed it forever….
It is not the purpose of this current blog post to provide a review of Bill O’Reilly‘s book – or to provide a review of any other books on the Lincoln assassination. Those will come in time. Students of the assassination know that there is a Harrisburg, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, connection with several of the principal characters who were at Ford’s Theatre the night of the assassination, and therefore, the Lincoln assassination and conspiracy theories related to it are an appropriate topic for future posts on this Civil War Blog.
In the meantime, readers of this blog should judge Killing Lincoln for themselves.
Comments to this post are welcome.