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What I Learned from Bill O’Reilly and His Book about Lincoln

This story appeared in the Dec. 28, 2011 issue of Streetwise magazine.

If you’ve ever watched a panel discussion at a convention workshop or in a museum or university setting, you know how easy it is for the event to be deadly dull.

Too often, each participant simply takes his or her allotted 10 minutes to trot out a boilerplate set of observations-arguments-data, regardless of the other panel members and their observations-arguments-data.

That’s what we wanted to avoid on Dec. 7 when five of us gathered on the stage of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield to discuss “Killing Lincoln,” a new book by TV commentator Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard.

Instead, we wanted to have a conversation about the O’Reilly-Dugard account of John Wilkes Booth’s murder of Lincoln.

Not only would that be more interesting for the 200 or so people in the audience, but also a reasonable give-and-take about the book was more likely to spark new thoughts and insights about popular history and the place of Lincoln in American lore.

A conversation and a flash of insight

And we succeeded so well that, midway through the conversation, I had a flash of insight and suddenly saw the O’Reilly-Dugard book in a completely new light.

O’Reilly, of course, is the host of The O’Reilly Factor on the Fox News Channel. Dugard, the writer of a slew of books, has twice before served as co-author with more famous names — once, with thriller writer James Patterson for a book arguing that King Tut was murdered, and, earlier, with Mark Burnett for a book about the Survivor TV show.

“Killing Lincoln” was published in late September. And, within a few weeks, news stories began appearing that some stores wouldn’t carry the book because of inaccuracies. On his show, O’Reilly said the errors were small, and he complained that critics were nitpicking.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum saw this as an opportunity to shed some light on the issue by bringing together four scholars with strong backgrounds in Lincoln — James M. Cornelius, the curator of the collection at the library and museum; Matthew Holden Jr., an expert in political science and race relations; Ron J. Keller, director of the Lincoln Heritage Museum in Lincoln, Ill.; and Daniel W. Stowell, director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project.

I was asked to moderate the conversation because I’m a member of the advisory board for the library and museum and because, during my 32-year career with the Chicago Tribune, I often wrote about Lincoln.

Not pushing his political agenda

In preparation, we all read “Killing Lincoln.” I posted a review of the book on my website at . In that review, I noted that I was pleasantly surprised that O’Reilly didn’t use the book as an occasion to push his political agenda. I also pointed out that the book was sloppy and sensationalized and filled with fictionalized scenes and interchanges.

One example of an error: O’Reilly and Dugard state, “Photographs of his [U.S. Grant’s] bearded, expressionless face have been on the front pages of newspapers for more than a year.” However, the first use of a photograph in a newspaper wasn’t until 1880.

One fictional scene: The co-authors describe a rageful Booth storming out of a shooting gallery and heading to a tavern for a drink. They write: “John Wilkes Booth thinks hard about what comes next. ‘Our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done,’ he tells himself.” Of course, there’s no way they know what Booth was thinking and certainly no way they know what he was saying to himself.

On Dec. 7, it was evident early that the four scholars agreed with me about the lack of political spin in the book and about its plethora of errors. Indeed, Holden described it as “trashy” — in a popular-novel sort of way. (You can hear a podcast of the hour-long conversation at .)

Several of the panelists contended that the book slandered Edwin Stanton by giving space to a long-debunked theory that Lincoln’s Secretary of War was behind the Booth conspiracy. But we all agreed that O’Reilly and Dugard got the essential fact right: Booth shot and killed Lincoln.

A sudden realization

About midway through the session, the five of us talked about what makes a reliable history book, and one of the scholars mentioned, as an example of an unreliable but popular history of the Lincoln assassination, “The Day Lincoln Was Shot,” published in 1955 by Jim Bishop.

That’s when it struck me. And I turned to the panelists and said that, even though “The Day Lincoln Was Shot” has many shortcomings:

“I’m here because of that book.”

I was about 10 when I read it, and — as unreliable and, in its own way, “trashy” as it was — Bishop’s book sparked my interest in Lincoln and was the gateway for me into a lifetime of reading about, studying and thinking about Honest Abe.

I wasn’t alone. Keller said “The Day Lincoln Was Shot” was also important his own early interest in the 16th President.

Like the Bishop book, “Killing Lincoln” may be a bad work of history, but it’s very readable and it gets the essential fact right.

If there is a 10-year-old girl or boy out there who reads it and becomes enthralled with the majesty and mystery of Abraham Lincoln, I’m all for it.

It’s flawed, but not fatally. And anyone who comes away from the book with a heightened interest in Lincoln is going to be able to find better books, such as “Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln” by Edward Steers, Jr., and “The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies” by William Hanchett.

I can live with that.

Patrick T. Reardon, a member of the advisory board of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, was a Chicago Tribune writer for 32 years and is a former scholar in residence at the Newberry Library.

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