What Bill O'Reilly should have read instead
Here are a few books on Lincoln's assassination that tell the story better than O'Reilly's 'Killing Lincoln.'
Oh really, Bill O'Reilly?
You're a TV star, best-selling author, and big-time celebrity. And now, on top of that, you're a Lincoln historian.
But not a great one, it seems. A virtual Doris Kearns Bad-win, judging by the criticism hurled at you this week. Historians say your new book, "Killing Lincoln," is chock-full of small errors – a stovepipe-hat-sized list, it seems – and a bookstore at the Ford's Theatre won't sell it.
Naughty, naughty. But I see an even bigger crime: You've written an unnecessary book.
In just the past few years, authors have produced several excellent books about the days leading up to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the aftermath.
Several are beautifully written and emotionally wrenching, and they all offer new perspectives on what historian Anthony Pitch calls "the saddest story in American history."If you'd bothered to read them, Bill, perhaps you would have found another angle or – who knows? – another topic. (Dogs, perhaps? Another original idea!)
But it's not too late. Here are several histories that belong on bookshelves ahead of your opus:
• If you're ever in Washington D.C., take a moment to go on a Lincoln assassination walking tour with historian Anthony Pitch. It's not grim, and you'll learn plenty by understanding just how tiny the capital was – and how near the major players were to each other – on the day Lincoln was shot.
The next best thing to being there is reading Pitch's " 'They Have Killed Papa Dead!': The Road to Ford’s Theatre, Abraham Lincoln’s Murder, and the Rage for Vengeance." He writes about the desperate efforts to protect the president, who was always in danger, plus the devastating grief and cruel injustice that came after Lincoln’s death.
• To get into the warped mind of the assassin, start with "American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies," by Michael W. Kauffman, who has offered tours of his own. For further reading, try "My Thoughts Be Bloody: The Bitter Rivalry Between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth that Led to an American Tragedy."
• "Killing Lincoln" is said to be sympathetic to Mary Surratt, the alleged assassination conspirator who was, as they say, hanged until she was dead.
She does deserve some sympathy. Pitch's book does a fine job of exploring the kangaroo court that sentenced her to the gallows and the disturbing mistreatment of all of the accused.
For an even more intimate look at Surratt, check Kate Clifford Larson's "The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln." It inspired the Robert Redford movie "The Conspirator," but – as Larson told me in an interview earlier this year – she utterly disagrees with the movie's conclusion about Surratt's guilt.
"If they were going to hang any of them, she deserved to hang as well," Larson said. "She could have stopped it, she could have reported that Booth was up to kidnapping or killing, and she did not. It's uncomfortable, but that's the truth."
• For an extraordinary page-turner, read James Swanson's action-packed 2006 bestseller "Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer."
Then take a look at Swanson's follow-up, "Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse." As I wrote in my review last year, your heart will break.
And that, Bill O'Reilly, is that most pesky of things – a fact.
Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor’s books section.