You have to admit it, television talk-show host Bill O'Reilly is extremely popular. His nightly Fox News Channel program is the highest-rated cable news show in America. Love him, despise him, or simply ignore him, millions of people know Bill O'Reilly and most have an opinion about him, one way or the other. His often bombastic style irritates and delights, driving his ratings through the roof. While he defends conservative political points consistently he is willing to go where similar hosts will not go in criticising certain conservatives by using his famous tag of "pinhead." Yet he continues to get most political leaders and pop-culture icons to appear on his show, something rarely done in this venue. He may well be the most talked about political commentator of our day. But can he write a successful historical book that goes beyond his modern political opinion? (O'Reilly was a history teacher at one point in the past.)
I confess that when I first saw the numerous advertisements for O'Reilly's new best-seller, Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever, I was distinctly not interested. Why? I am neither a fan of O'Reilly nor a huge critic. I just do not pay much attention to Bill O'Reilly at all. (I might watch him once or twice in a month for all of about ten minutes.) And as a serious student of Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president, I was quite sure that this book would never keep my interest for long. I was prepared to find so many flaws. Before reading word one I already knew what a few of these flaws were.
My wife asked me to borrow the book from the public library when I was headed that way one afternoon. We were put on a waiting list. Finally the book became available. When Anita finished it in six days I still had eight days to read it before it had to be returned. So last week I finished it in five days! It was that good. I confess that I have read better history, and better Lincoln biography by far, but this is a truly well-written book. It is emotionally engaging in a way that is rarely found in books about Lincoln or any other American president or historical event.
Short chapters, a vivid and imaginative style of writing, and enough detail to be helpful to ordinary readers, the book is truly a page-turner, especially for those who would never read the work of professional historians. Yet this is precisely why so many critics have widely attacked this book. It's popular style, joined with its non-use of historical footnotes, creates the perfect storm for genuine and fair criticism. The lack of notation is considered a cardinal sin in the academic world. Even some credible historians have been shredded by reviewers for lesser flaws than can be found in Killing Lincoln. And flaws there are in this book.
But O'Reilly (and Dugan) clearly set out to write a "historical thriller." I believe they succeeded quite well. The authors make you feel like you were right there at Ford's theater or in the fields of Virginia when John Wilkes Booth was found and shot.
I could pick numerous examples to show why the writing style of this books works so well. I will use but one good example, in describing Booth's actions and thoughts just fifteen minutes before he shot Lincoln. The authors say, "Booth had a head full of whiskey and a heart full of hate. He thinks of the Confederate cause and Lincoln's promise to give slaves the vote. And then Booth remembers that no one can put a stop to it but him. He is the one man who can, and will, make a difference. There will be no going back" (page 195). Is this an accurate account of Booths thoughts? Well, yes and no. He did not write them down precisely nor was a reporter there asking him fifteen minutes before he fired on the president. But this form of writing liberty is exactly what makes the book so interesting. You "feel" all this in Booth since this is quite close to what he did say about himself and his actions before and after the assassination. Historians will challenge this free form of writing but I confess that I loved it.
Now, back to the question of flaws. Is the book accurate in all ways? No, there are clearly some details that O'Reilly (and co-author Martin Dugard) got wrong. Consider the criticism of several published reviewers on November 13 in the Huffington Post. But anyone who follows political reporting and opinion knows that the Huffington Post is no fan of Bill O'Reilly. Other reviews are also critical but far more fair with the book. An example of this can be seen in the respected Kirkus Reviews.
So should you read Killing Lincoln? If you know very little about the story, enjoy a good way of telling it in evocative words and are not looking to do serious research on the subject then my answer is affirmative. If you are interested in Lincoln scholarship then try several of the books recommended in the Kirkus Reviews.