Friday, December 9, 2011

The Curator’s Corner: A Review of Bill O'Reilly's "Killing Lincoln"

It is estimated that since Abraham Lincoln’s death  approximately 17,000 books have been written on this man—enough books to more than fill a multitude of books shelves.   In that span of time, historians and non-historians have examined nearly every aspect of Lincoln’s life churning out volumes and selling those to a public who has a seemingly inexhaustible fascination for knowing more about our greatest American.    Combine a popular commodity such as like Lincoln, a gripping topic such as assassination, and an author with a household name and the result is the perfect ingredient for a blockbuster.     Perhaps that is what is making the recent release Killing Lincoln from Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (Henry Holt & Co., 2011, 336 pages) a hot conversation piece in historical literary circles.     Indeed, as far as sales, Killing Lincoln is not a disappointment.    At the time of this writing, it is number two on the New York Times bestseller list in the non-fiction category.    Unfortunately, the “non-fiction” ascription is where the book falters. 

On paper, O’Reilly and his partner Dugard don’t just have the names, but also boast impressive enough credentials to produce a historical work.    O’ Reilly—while better known as a FOX News analyst on the highly popular O’Reilly Factor show—is a Harvard-educated former high school teacher with a degree in history.   Dugard is an accomplished writer, having tackled such varied topics as Christoper Columbus and King Tut to the television show Survivor, to his own personal experiences as a runner.    However, those résumés fail to deliver a well-researched and accurate account of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.     Killing Lincoln is saddled with numerous historical errors, misrepresentations, and half-baked conspiracy theories.

Some of the more egregious errors that O’Reilly and Dugard commit relate to their rehashing of the worn-out and long since debunked conspiracy theory that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was behind the assassination of Lincoln.    This harks back to the 1937 very flawed Otto Eisenschiml book, Why Was Lincoln Murdered?    Eisenschiml manipulated War Department files to paint Stanton as a co-conspirator in the plot to bring down Lincoln.   Jim Bishop followed that two decades later in his equally appalling The Day Lincoln Was Shot.   Both books have since been sufficiently discredited as myth, with Bishop later even referring to his own book as a “piece of ____.”    William Hanchett, Edward Steers, and Michael Kauffman among others have generally accepted Stanton’s involvement as fallacious.   Yet O’Reilly and Dugard turn to that, without producing any new evidence or research of why that fabricated legend should be accepted.    The duo write that Stanton’s role “continues to intrigue and befuddle scholars,” (p 121) but the only thing that might befuddle scholars is why O’Reilly and Dugard wish to continue to pass this “elaborate theory” as they call it as fact.   If “there are those who believe,” (p. 287) as they write, that Stanton was involved, those people are only O’Reilly and Dugard, and those who unfortunately are duped by reading Killing Lincoln. 

To play into their conspiracy fable, O’Reilly and Dugard play good cop bad cop with several of the key players.   They uphold William Crook of the D.C. Metropolitan Police as “Lincoln’s responsible bodyguard,” as opposed to  John Parker, “Lincoln’s irresponsible bodyguard” (p. 289) who was assigned to guard Lincoln the night he was assassinated but then “abandoned” his station when Lincoln was in the box.   Unfortunately,  further research into the assigned duties of Lincoln’s bodyguards would have led the authors to the reality that different from today’s concept of bodyguards, the only role of the Metropolitan Police then was to escort them from one location to another and not as 24-hour watch.   Thus Parker was certainly not derelict as the authors incorrectly contend.   To the authors’ nearly heroic portrayal of Crook—writing that “his affection for Lincoln is enormous… treating him like a child that must be protected,” (p. 36) historians have long since relied little upon Crook’s embellished accounts.   The account that on the night of the assassination Lincoln relayed to Crook that “other men have been assassinated,” (p. 174) and upon their departure Lincoln said “goodbye” to Crook for the first time instead of the usual “goodnight” (p. 180) makes for the terrific dramatic suspense that O’Reilly and Dugard aim for, but adds little to historical reality and veracity.  

There are several errors to which O’Reilly has charged his critics as being nitpicky.   To be fair, to some extent he might be right asserting this.   Mistakes such as the size of the farm where John Wilkes Booth hid following the assassination was 217 instead of 500; or that the authors refer to the Ford’s Theatre carpenter’s name as Clifford instead of Gifford; or their contention that conspirator Lewis Powell spoke with an Alabama drawl when he was from Florida, are all issues which rile only the historical purists and arguably might border on excessive fault finding.    However, more serious blunders including referring to Lincoln’s office as the Oval Office when the latter was not part of the White House until 50 years later should be known to someone who has covered White House politics as O’Reilly has.    Much more erroneous is the statement that Stanton ran against Lincoln in 1860—when he clearly did not—should not escape even the simplest credible amateur writers of history.  

Perhaps the most damning criticism of the book is the lack of citing.   Not one statement or quotation is cited or credited to any particular source.   The notes in Killing Lincoln resort to a “brief list” (their words) of books they consulted “among others” (again their words).   Not surprisingly the flawed Jim Bishop book is listed one of their sources.     Both writers, one trained in history and the other in writing, should know better and no book should ever qualify as trustworthy and reliable if the authors cannot take the time and effort to document their “research” if in this case one can call it research.

These noted errors aside, Killing Lincoln found immediate criticism even before its September release.    O’Reilly is widely perceived as a polemical, vocal, right-wing political commentator, and not a historian; thus, in advance of its release, speculation rose that the book would be biased and carry a hidden or not-so-hidden political agenda.    Because O’Reilly is who he is, some historians blasted the book before they ever really read it.   Prize-winning historian Eric Foner upon hearing the book was riddled with mistakes commented, “I would not be surprised if there were historical errors as O’Reilly is better known as a TV polemicist than a scholar.”   Surprising to many however, Killing Lincoln is devoid of any obvious political slant.    Sadly, where bias might exist in this case is on the side of historians rather than O’Reilly.   Several years ago, former New York governor Mario Cuomo wrote his discourse Why Lincoln Matters, which in summation argued that if Abraham Lincoln were president today he would be a liberal Democrat and would disagree with the policies of George W. Bush.   The political agenda there was evident, yet many in the historical community either embraced or were strangely silent in criticism of Cuomo.  Such activity bolsters claims by O’Reilly and his defenders that “unbiased” historians are the ones who sometimes exercise political agendas.  

I reserve a little bit of praise for Killing Lincoln.    While I do not recommend it to anyone to read who desires an accurate description of the assassination of Lincoln, I applaud O’Reilly and Dugard for the same reason I applaud Cuomo for his book or Seth Grahame-Smith for Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.    Each of those is seriously flawed in its own way, yet each instigated historical dialogue and appreciation for history in many.    There is no doubt that Killing Lincoln has caused people to talk about Lincoln history.   There is no doubt that Vampire Hunter and Killing Lincoln, while appalling to historians, are successes and have allowed many people previously ignorant to any history to be interested.   And what is so bad as that?   It demonstrates that Abraham Lincoln still matters and still relates to us 150 years later.  Yes, there is a fear that a novice reader might read Killing Lincoln and now accept it as fact errors included.   Or maybe, what is more likely is that the same reader who may never have read a book on historical fiction now will suddenly want to read more.    What is the harm in that?  

Some book of history inspired and eventually yielded a great assassination writer such as James Swanson just as some book did Bill O’Reilly.   My first personal exposure as a youth to Abraham Lincoln was Stefan Lorant’s amazing photo biography, but also Jim Bishop’s faulty but compelling The Day Lincoln Was Shot.    They both turned me on to history, and I my historical journey began, as I read all I could.    Likewise, Killing Lincoln might be that source of inspiration for others.  May it spur more people to reach for the bookshelves and devour much better books on Lincoln’s assassination, or perhaps someday inspire them to add to the 17,000 books out there on Lincoln.