He’s done it again. Bill O’Reilly, host of Fox News’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” self-described “champion bloviator,” and chronicler of presidential assassinations including the bestselling “Killing Lincoln,” just released another presidential thriller.
“Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot,” co-written with Martin Dugard, chronicles the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy with all the suspense and drama of a popular thriller (and, by some accounts, few of the citations of a history book).
“Killing Kennedy” seems destined to enjoy the same success as “Killing Lincoln,” which sold more than 2 million copies since its release a year ago. “Kennedy” hit shelves this Tuesday and is already #2 on Amazon’s bestseller list, above even J.K. Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy.”
Of course, everything about O’Reilly, including his literary success, draws controversy. Some historians, including a deputy superintendent at Ford’s Theatre, found errors in O’Reilly’s “Killing Lincoln” as well as a serious shortage of documentation. (At one point, Ford’s Theatre, site of the assassination, even refused to carry the book.)
In an interview with USA Today, O’Reilly called the errors “picayune” and attributed the criticism to jealousy. “These guys toil in obscurity their whole lives and a punk like me comes along and sells 2 million copies. They’re not happy.”
Any wonder he invites controversy?
With this trademark confidence, O’Reilly describes “Killing Kennedy” as “history that’s fun to read” in a “populist way. No pinheaded stuff, just roar it through!”
Co-author Dugard, O’Reilly told USA Today, did most of the research, leaving the writing to O’Reilly, whose approach is to make history accessible with thriller-like foreshadowing, dramatic details, and a you-are-there present tense. Along the way, complain his critics, he takes literary liberties with history, as in this line that describes a 1962 party in which Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe rendezvous: “There is an intimacy in their movements that leaves no doubt they will be sleeping together tonight."
(Though there is no source for this in the book itself, for the record, O’Reilly claims this line is based on an article in the British tabloid, “Daily Mail,” confirmed by a federal agent who was at the party.)
Historians cringe at O’Reilly’s lack of citation and occasional “literary liberties,” but to his credit, the Fox News host and former high school history teacher says he writes popular history “to get people engaged with their country.” Few history books are fun to read, he tells USA Today. “Even the really good ones, by Robert Caro and these guys – I mean, they’re brilliant guys, but to get through 800 pages, you either have to be retired or on vacation for six weeks.”
(Caro’s fourth book on Lyndon Johnson, “The Passage of Power,” is 712 pages with 79 pages of footnotes. O’Reilly’s “Killing Kennedy” is 325 pages with seven pages of sources.)
“Killing Kennedy” deals with the former President’s professional and personal life, including his many extramarital affairs. Perhaps its most intriguing subject, however, is not Kennedy, but Lee Harvey Oswald, who O’Reilly calls “.…crazy, and I mean crazy.”
O’Reilly doesn’t solve the mystery of Kennedy’s assassination in “Killing Kennedy,” or find evidence of a conspiracy, but he doesn’t rule it out.
“I know that Oswald killed Kennedy,” he tells USA Today. “Now, was he pushed? Encouraged to do it by outsiders? Possibly. Possibly. Was he sitting down with Fidel Castro? No.”
“Killing Kennedy” may not receive the academic accolades of a Caro tome, but it will get history – however flawed in its retelling – into the hands of many more people.
We can’t help but think that’s a good thing. What do you think?
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.