By Michael Lynch
Killing Lincoln, the bestseller co-authored by cable news pundit Bill O’Reilly, is in the news right now because one of the Ford’s Theatre gift shops will refrain from carrying it. The store, located in the theater’s basement museum, is operated by Eastern National, the organization that manages National Park Service stores. The lobby gift shop, run by the Ford’s Theatre Society, will sell the book.
A Park Service staff member made the recommendation against stocking the book because it contains a number of errors and lacks the usual documentation found in most historical works. Some of the mistakes in the text are minor discrepancies, such as the statement that Ford’s Theatre burned in 1863 instead of 1862. Others are more embarrassing. For example, O’Reilly and his co-author Martin Dugard place Lincoln in the Oval Office, which wasn’t constructed until decades after the Civil War. Such errors can pop up occasionally in any piece of scholarship, but the dearth of documentation in Killing Lincoln is striking even for a popularized history book put out by a commercial publisher; there are no endnotes, just a very brief description of published sources at the end of the book.
O’Reilly has framed the affair as a personal battle between himself and a pack of malicious detractors. On his TV show, he stated (hopefully with his tongue in his cheek) that the book has come under attack by “the forces of darkness.” He has referred to criticism of the book as “a concerted effort by people who don’t like me” and claims that “our enemies are full of rage at our success.” That strikes me as a little disingenuous. The store’s decision not to stock the book is essentially a routine bit of internal NPS business.
Where O’Reilly’s public stature comes into play is not with regard to Eastern National’s call not to sell his book, but the fact that the media thought that decision was a newsworthy item. Normally a museum shop’s decision not to stock an item wouldn’t be the stuff of national news, but a controversial media personality like O’Reilly makes for an inviting target. He’s therefore vulnerable to a kind of criticism that doesn’t plague most historical writers. Maybe that’s unfair, but on the other hand, most historians don’t enjoy the kind of ready-made visibility that would allow them to publish a poorly documented book and see it instantly rocket to the top of the bestseller lists.
For what it’s worth, my issue with Killing Lincoln isn’t so much a complaint about its content as it is a manifestation of perplexity. I’m not sure why such a book needed to be written in the first place. In recent years we’ve seen a number of well-written and carefully researched books on the Lincoln assassination, such as Blood on the Moon by Ed Steers, American Brutus by Michael Kauffman, and Manhunt by James Swanson. These are all scholarly works, but they’re also sufficiently accessible that any non-specialist could enjoy them. Is O’Reilly bringing anything new to the table?
He has said that Lincoln was an exemplary leader, and that his desire for Americans to draw on his wisdom helped prompt him to write the book. Fair enough, but if you want to unpack Lincoln’s greatness, writing about the assassination seems like an odd way to go about it. Taking a bullet to the back of the head while watching a play wasn’t exactly the most statesmanlike act of Lincoln’s career.
Perhaps O’Reilly decided to tackle Lincoln’s assassination for no other reason than the same pull of the past that’s reeled in countless other history buffs, including myself. If that’s the case, I can admire his enthusiasm, even if I’d be hesitant to recommend his book to anybody else who’s caught the same bug. In any case, the book’s absence from the shelves of the NPS gift shop doesn’t seem to be affecting its popularity. As of this writing, it holds the number two spot on the New York Times list of hardcover non-fiction bestsellers.
—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.