Review: “Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever” (Book)
Authors: Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard
Publication Date: September 27, 2011
Friday, September 30, 2011, 8:35pm. With the book being released just days before, I made the decision to purchase “Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever,” the latest book by Bill O’Reilly in collaboration with historian and author Martin Dugard.
I’ve struggled with how to best approach this review, because O’Reilly himself is a polarizing figure. The Fox News host of “The O’Reilly Factor” – the most watched cable news program on television today – needs little introduction, whether you agree with him or not.
But let’s look at the facts. O’Reilly spent two years as a history and English teacher from 1970 to 1972 before he made the leap to broadcast journalism. He has written several books, but until now they have focused on his own views of America that usually are expanded dialogues from his shows. Co-author Martin Dugard is a historian and writer who wrote one pre-Civil War book titled “The Training Ground: Grant, Lee, Sherman and Davis in the Mexican War, 1846 – 1848.”
The Lincoln assassination is one of great fascination to many, so what sparked this pairing and subsequent book is unclear. I can speculate that O’Reilly had an interest in the subject, the followers and name recognition, while Dugard had historical details. And while Dugard no doubt had a large part in writing this book, it’s written in a format and tone that mimics O’Reilly’s other ventures. If you purchase the audio book version, this tone is even more obvious as it’s read by O’Reilly himself.
The book has caused a stir, and it’s obvious just by looking at amazon.com; currently 1,338 readers have given it five stars, with another 1,155 giving it one star. Less than 400 objective readers rank it somewhere in between. The National Park Service has deemed it too inaccurate and banned it from selling it in the basement store at Ford’s Theatre, where the assassination took place. But Ford’s first floor store does sell it, stating they would “allow readers to judge it for themselves.” Many historians have called it fiction; O’Reilly defends it as 100% truth.
I always think it’s important to understand what the motive of the author is. In O’Reilly’s own words from his own book’s introduction, he describes the events as “True, and truly shocking.” He admits that he thought he understood the facts and implications of the assassination from his time as a history teacher, but has since learned otherwise. He states that there are “Layers of proven conspiracy and alleged conspiracy that will disturb you.” He talks about wanting to use the book to help the reader advance their understanding of our country; that the “Lessons are relevant to all our lives, and we must be aware of the true heroes and the true villains.” He states that the book reads like a thriller, but it’s a “No-spin American story.”
So what is my verdict? Well, after going through the book more than five times, I believe I finally figured out how best to describe it.
First, the book is in the format of O’Reilly’s show: Date, time, location. Sentences are short. The story begins on the battlefields in Virginia, in the days before the fall of Richmond and Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia. There is a lot of focus on the days before the assassination in an attempt to educate the reader and eventually provide some explanation why the assassination occurred. O’Reilly sporadically goes out of the time frame to give little back stories that will eventually tie in to future events. He also sometimes jumps ahead in time and gives tidbits that basically spoil certain parts of the story if you aren’t familiar with it. He states everything as fact, including actions by individuals that were not witnessed; therefore it’s really the imagination of the author based on what he imagines his subject would do in a certain situation.
The words in the book are definitely in O’Reilly’s voice. But the stories told come across in three different tones. You have the first tone of the history teacher who knows the basics on the assassination, along with many interesting points that the normal, everyday person wouldn’t know unless they had read books dedicated to the topic. To someone who might find history daunting, the short sentences and simple words are a way of making it more accessible and relatable.
The second tone is one of an individual who, during the process of writing this book, learned new stories that he found interesting. I think it’s human nature to want to share cool stories and “Ah-ha!” moments after you learn of them, and that’s what happens on many occasions in this book. This tends to interrupt the flow of the book at many points, and at times comes across as “Hey, fun fact…”. Except sometimes it’s not a fact, and sometimes it’s as inaccurate as you can get.
And then you have the third tone; that of “The O’Reilly Factor” host who adds his own speculation on events. This is where the book falters the most. The assassination will always be fraught with conspiracy theories and while O’Reilly is quick to throw out theories and questions to the reader, it’s done in a way that seems irresponsible and leaves no real answers.
This book is not for a person who already knows a great deal about the assassination. It’s a starter book for someone who is being introduced to this topic for the first time. It’s great that O’Reilly has likely been able to get a decent amount of his followers to read the book, and by reading it they have learned some good things and hopefully they will continue to learn more on the subject. But the negative is that the book has a lot of inaccuracies and at times is so blatantly false that it’s hard to just ignore and say “Oh well.”