by Bill O’Reilly & Martin Dugard
It is almost impossible to review Killing Lincoln without first reviewing one of its listed authors, Bill O’Reilly. Anchor of The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News and a self-avowed right-leaning conservative, just mentioning his name stirs up controversy. Plainly, the controversies have spread to his book. Many reviews are more a judgement of O’Reilly’s politics than his take on the Lincoln assassination, and some reviewers seem to feel that, without the proper academic credentials establishing O’Reilly as a historian, he has no right to even think about writing history. I am not so sure this is history however, and all the controversy is a diversion.
Killing Lincoln, released in 2011 by Henry Holt and Company, and available in audio book form read by the author, is an interesting thriller, riveting and compelling in its style. It is written in present tense, an unusual way to approach history. Initially, this is a little disconcerting, especially when listening to the audio version. Nothing is “in the past.” Every scene is immediate, from examining the crowd at Lincoln’s Second Inaugural to the sad scattering of Lee’s troops just before Appomattox. A present tense approach is, however, used very effectively in creating a true crime atmosphere, and this books seems to fit that genre much better than that of history.
The audio book, read by Bill O’Reilly in what could be described as a flat, “true-crime” narration style, lends further credence to the claims of the authors that their book is a “thriller,” and not a historical recounting. Each chapter even begins with a Dragnet-influenced recitation of date, time and place.
The narrative is fast-paced, and the relentless countdown of Lincoln’s remaining time is a unique literary device which heightens the anticipation of events to come, overriding the fact that the ending itself is already well known. By extension, one begins to count down John Wilkes Booth’s remaining time after the assassination.
Opening scenes include Lincoln aboard the River Queen, visiting General Grant at City Point and waiting for the fall of Richmond, which begins the death knell of the Confederacy. At the same time, an angry John Wilkes Booth is plotting among a group of Confederate sympathizers in and around Washington, D. C. to kidnap Lincoln and hold him for ransom. As the narrative progresses, the kidnap plot turns to one of murder when Lee capitulates to Grant at Appomattox.
O’Reilly/Dugard’s Booth is one of the most interesting characters in the book. Described as, “ . . . handsome, brilliant, witty, charismatic, tender,” the authors create sympathy for Booth’s anger at the surrender of the South. One begins to understand that terrible sense of betrayal felt by so many on the Confederate side as O’Reilly/Dugard create motives for Booth’s actions, from his drinking and plotting through the assassination and the ill-fated jump to the stage floor, partially breaking the actor’s lower leg, to the final episode where the barn in which Booth is hiding is surrounded, fired, and Booth himself is shot dead.
Some have questioned whether this particular version of Booth is a creation of the authors, or if a case can be made for its factual nature based on primary sources. I feel it is both, as the sources listed in “Notes” at the back of the book (not available in the audio version) contain both secondary and primary sources, including Booth’s diary.
I have read many of the reviews, including the one by the National Park Service, which point out literary and factual errors in Killing Lincoln, and I have read the multitude of comments these reviews have generated. The reviews and comments alone could be a book! My opinion is that the factual errors, although there, are not important enough to derail the book as an entertaining read. Several “objections” do not even seem valid.
Although not foot or end-noted, which is complained of often by reviewers, many well-known, reliable primary and secondary sources are listed in the “Notes” section of the print edition. A “Recreation of Harper’s Weekly” reprint of the events is included as well. A thorough reading of this Appendix should be enough to silence those who feel that O’Reilly/Dugard are attempting to resurrect the “old canard” concerning Secretary Stanton’s suspected involvement in the Lincoln Conspiracy and the missing pages of Booth’s diary. It is alluded to in the Harper’s account, and could not be left out if the authors were to remain true to their attempt to stay in present tense.
Additionally, although Bill O’Reilly is clear in his opinion that, “John Wilkes Booth epitomizes the evil that can harm us, even as President Abraham Lincoln represents the good that can make us stronger,” in his Epilogue, I could discern no particular hidden messages in the book that might pertain to today’s political situation. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Killing Lincoln, when reviewed as history, adds nothing to Lincoln scholarship. It presents no challenges to theories about the assassination plot, nor does it provide new information concerning the trial of the conspirators. However, the book never claimed this as its purpose.
Both O’Reilly and Dugard have said in interviews that they wanted to write the book to help “bring history alive” and reach more mainstream readers than an average history accounting. It’s tone owes more to Anne Rule than to Carl Sandburg. When reviewed with these “factors” in mind, the book holds up very well. Give it a listen.