As he told his colleagues at Fox and Friends, his goal was to craft a story that would read "like a thriller," and yet instruct the nation on the qualities required of the next president of the United States. O'Reilly's "Killing Lincoln" has succeeded in at least one respect. It delivers a taut, action-packed narrative with cliff-hangers aplenty, no mean feat since we all know how the story ends. But whether the book succeeds as a lesson in moral leadership is quite another question.
In the hands of O'Reilly and his co-author, Martin Dugard, Lincoln's assassination most resembles the kind of morality tale beloved of cable news networks: sensationalized, suggestive, and overly simplistic. O'Reilly's Lincoln is surrounded by a supporting cast of clichés. The cigar-smoking, horse-whispering Ulysses S. Grant, the proudly patrician Robert E. Lee, a childish and impulsive First Lady, and a suave demon in disguise, John Wilkes Booth – "handsome, brilliant, witty, charismatic, tender, and able to bed almost any woman he wants," a passionate son of the Confederacy, and a virulent racist with a "pathological hatred for Lincoln."
Even as Booth is represented as evil incarnate, O'Reilly gives us a Lincoln cleansed of all controversy and complexity. This Lincoln is humble, courageous, compassionate, steadfast, a "man of faith" who knows that "God will guide him." In the last days of the war, his primary goal is to reunite and heal a wounded nation, even though he knows it will likely cost him his life. O'Reilly's Lincoln is, in short, an old-school national martyr.
While O'Reilly has promoted the book with promises of lessons for today's fractious political climate, readers will be hard-pressed to find any insights into national leadership here. Indeed, Lincoln's extraordinary skills as a politician and a leader are, curiously, almost entirely ignored in the book. Instead, Lincoln's character is boiled down to a few banal and easily repeated slogans. "America is a great country," O'Reilly reminds us, and "President Abraham Lincoln represents the good that can make us stronger."
Rather than offering lessons in leadership or solutions for a politically divided nation, the book unwittingly exemplifies some of the greatest failings of our current mass mediated political discourse. There is the oversimplification of complex realities, the appeal of crass sensationalism, the stereotypical pigeon-holing of public figures, the innuendo based on hearsay and scant evidence. Throughout the book, in fact, O'Reilly strongly implies that Lincoln's Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, was a party to the assassination, a conspiracy that he hints may have included members of Congress, Army and Navy officers, bankers, industrialists, journalists, and a sitting governor. Of course, he is careful to cloak these allegations in the kind of accusatory rhetorical questions that are now so commonly employed by the punditocracy.
In the end, "Killing Lincoln" is both a thrilling historical tale and a disappointing reminder that in today's media and political landscape, style and image often take precedence over evidence and substance.
Jackie Hogan is Chair of Sociology at Bradley University and author of "Lincoln, Inc.: Selling the Sixteenth President in Contemporary America."