Culture

'Killing Reagan' More Regurgitated Pop Culture Than Serious Scholarship

 

Image via Amazon

Image via Amazon

So, this is what we have come to in the Bill O’Reilly KillingIcons series. First, a book that entertainingly hypothesizes an assassination out of thin gruel (Killing Patton) and now a book about a failed assassination attempt (Killing Reagan). Except very little about O’Reilly’s most recent book is even about the assassination attempt on President Reagan—unless you want to count the character assassination by O’Reilly and his (actual) writer, Martin Dugard. It’s little more than the latest attempt by Bill O’Reilly to gain mainstream acceptance.

Not long ago, I wrote that comparing Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump was the biggest insult imaginable to Reagan’s legacy. Not any more. This garbage far surpasses it, in no small part because the big breaking news that O’Reilly claims justifies his rush job on this sloppy, poorly constructed book was already discussed—and mostly discarded—in 1988.

That’s right, Bill, the 1980s called and they want their breaking news back.

The big breaking news (in Bill O’Reilly’s mind) is an internal investigation conducted by then chief of staff Howard Baker into the condition of White House operations in the wake of the Iran-Contra affair. Baker asked his longtime staffers James Cannon and Thomas Griscom to give him an assessment of the situation.

They reported that the White House was in “chaos” and even raised the possibility that a 25th Amendment succession of the vice president might be in order based on reports of a depressed and inactive president relayed to them by some staffers..

O’Reilly recently told George Stephanopoulos, without explaining why, that this bombshell was what made another Killing project—and the escalated timeline—particularly important in an election year.

But this big breaking news was also the centerpiece of another anti-Reagan hatchet job: Landslide: Unmaking of the President, 1984-88, by Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times and Jane Mayer of the Wall Street Journal. (Mayer’s other great works are a slanderous book on Justice Clarence Thomas that channels Anita Hill and a book that makes the CIA look like the Gestapo in the current war on terror.)

Howard Baker has always maintained that he never seriously considered the succession angle; and even in Landslide, Cannon says he began to doubt what he had heard from aides the first time he saw the president for himself in the meeting that O’Reilly and Dugard so breathlessly report was the acid test for whether or not to remove the president.

But even Landslide makes less of this historical tidbit than O’Reilly and Dugard, whose premise is that John Hinckley, Jr. accelerated Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s disease by wounding the president, which essentially put Nancy Reagan in control of the White House…which explains Iran-Contra.

I’m not kidding.

So, every gaffe, every less-than-brilliant moment the mainstream media and Reagan’s political opponents tried to blow up into an indictment of his intellect, is dragged out and explained under a microscope as evidence in Killing Reagan.

Astonishingly, the 1986 Reykjavik Summit — where Ronald Reagan essentially went toe-to-toe with Mikhail Gorbachev for exhausting days on end with minimal input from staff — is left out of a book that examines Reagan’s mental competence. And his brilliant first speech after the shooting — the speech that essentially sealed the deal for his economic program — is given short shrift with faint praise, despite its relevance to the titular event.

But this goes even deeper. From this gruel so thin that Oliver’s orphanage would consider it inadequate, O’Reilly and Dugard decide that Nancy had been running Reagan’s life with a firm hand since the beginning of their marriage. They conjure up thoughts in Nancy’s head, coming up with silly attributions like this, my favorite of many such prescient statements:

Nancy Reagan looks ahead to the day that her husband, Ronald Wilson Reagan, becomes the president of the United States in 1980. She will see to it.

It’s cheap, but something that can no more be disproved than proved—like many similar points of the book (kind of like your average Donald Trump anecdote). (By the way, Nancy Reagan apparently stole Jimmy Carter’s debate prep notes, too. Again, I need to point out, I am not kidding.)

Pre-presidency, the authors portray Reagan as an actor on the skids whose career needed Nancy’s firm hand directing him toward television, citing Bedtime for Bonzo as a particular humiliation.

But as TCM’s website notes, Bedtime for Bonzo was a hit for Universal (the studio even made a sequel, minus the original stars, save for the chimp) and it actually gave Reagan’s movie career a short-term boost.

Oh, and it’s worth noting that Rotten Tomatoes gives Bedtime for Bonzo a 67% positive rating– better than Killing Lincoln, Killing Jesus, or Killing Kennedy.

That’s indicative of this book’s contempt for contemporary primary sources and the willingness to regurgitate current conventional pop culture “wisdom” in its place.

I have noticed that O’Reilly, outside of his own show, is not getting quite the boost on other Fox shows that one might expect. So far, among Fox personalities, only George Will, a “Special Report” All-Star panel semi-regular, has taken this book to task. It’s a great column, but it’s not enough. Other Fox pundits need to step up. This is a test of courage. 

In O’Reilly’s jaw-dropping confrontation with Will on his program, where he really defended none of his main points (has he even read his own book?) but instead screamed insults like “liar” and “hack” at the unflappable Will, Blustering Bill unwittingly gave us a crucial insight into the quality of his “research.”

O’Reilly cited a quote from Edmund Morris, whom he called THE Reagan biographer, that really didn’t refute George Will’s point at all.

But here’s the rub. Edmund Morris’s “biography” of Reagan is fiction. Well, sort of. It is one of the strangest books I have ever read.

Morris was riding a critical high after a great Volume 1 of a trilogy of Teddy Roosevelt, and was given unfettered access to Reagan—and his family–in the last years of his presidency. What Morris produced was an odd mishmash of a story, Dutch, which was actually told in the first person by an imaginary version of Morris whom “Dutch” tells all about his life as it’s happening. I’m not kidding. Does O’Reilly even know this?  (But even Morris, who was among the Reagans in the late ’80s, didn’t theorize that Nancy ran Ronnie’s life with an iron will.)

Bill also seems blissfully unaware that H.W. Brand’s Reagan: The Life was just published and would be considered by most to be THE biography. (Brand also somehow missed O’Reilly’s main discovery, despite researching actual primary sources.)

But Edmund Morris’s oddball book is worthy scholarly research sourcing compared to another book the authors of Killing Reagan cite, Kitty Kelley’s infamously discredited book on Nancy Reagan. They charge that Reagan was screwing his way through Hollywood in 1952, and leave the impression that these are settled facts. Without getting too much into this angle, here is a first person source from a Reagan friend from the era, included in H. W. Brand’s Reagan bio:

 “Reagan was a lonely guy,” [actor Eddie] Bracken said. He thought it striking that Reagan ignored the beautiful women all around him. “He was never for the sexpots,” Bracken said. “He was never a guy looking for the bed. He was a guy looking for companionship more than anything else.”

O’Reilly charges that critics aren’t interested in Reagan the man, but want him deified.  This is an easy charge for O’Reilly to make—even easier when he doesn’t have to deal with any of the facts the critics bring up, while setting himself up as the fair and balanced one.

Bill even claims his is a “laudatory” book because he sort of includes some of Reagan’s achievements. For instance, Reagan could be “brilliant” when his “obsession with Communism” woke him out of his stupor—allowing him to summon the strength to do great things—in between soap opera reruns.

Oh, and by the way, the man who was perhaps the most medically examined person in the world was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994, thirteen years after the shooting; he died 10 years later. But we had to wait for Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard to exhume him and tell us they know what the Mayo Clinic missed.

The recipe is simple: steal a minor premise from Landslide, throw in tabloid garbage from the ’90s, package it together in a popular book series, use your platform to breathlessly promote it as a new “investigation” and voila, Number 1 Bestseller.

“Liar?’ “Hack?” Look in the mirror, you bellicose, bloviating barbermonger. You are a purveyor of codswallop.