Review of “Killing Reagan: The Violent Assault That Changed a Presidency” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin DugardBooks
James Graham Wilson works in the Office of the Historian at the Department of State. He is the author of The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptability, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War (Cornell University Press, 2014). The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. Government.
On March 31, 1981, John Hinckley, a deranged loner obsessed with the actress Jodie Foster, fired six shots outside the Washington Hilton, striking a member of the United States Secret Service, a District of Columbia police officer, and grievously wounding the White House Press Secretary. Hinckley’s sixth and final bullet ricocheted off the presidential limousine and landed in the chest of Ronald Reagan. The president, who had turned seventy a few weeks earlier, very nearly died that day. While recovering from surgery at George Washington University Hospital, he wrote an eloquent letter to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev calling attention to the two men’s shared responsibility in preventing a nuclear war.
Surviving an assassination attempt probably reinforced Reagan’s faith in the concept of a destiny -- both for himself and his country. Minus that bullet, would his presidency have proceeded in a fundamentally different way? I doubt it. Still, it is a worthwhile question which Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard do not actually explore in Killing Reagan: The Violent Assault That Changed a Presidency. The latest installment in a tetralogy that has propelled the authors to first and seventh place on Amazon.com’s “Most Popular Authors in History” category, Killing Reagan has recently generated criticism. The October 16, 2015 edition of the Washington Post featured a scathing op-ed by Craig Shirley, Kiron K. Skinner, Paul Kengor, and Steven F. Hayward, titled: “What Bill O’Reilly’s New Book on Ronald Reagan Gets Wrong About Ronald Reagan.”
One does not necessarily have to be enamored of the Gipper to agree with these scholars, who have authored or edited nineteen books about him. “In researching and writing this book,” Bill O’Reilly writes on page 290, “Martin Dugard and I were extremely careful to use only material we could confirm through at least two sources, and even then we tried to be very fair in presenting facts that might put certain individuals in a bad light.” Both halves of that sentence are suspect. O’Reilly and Dugard do not employ individual citations, referring the reader instead to a brief note on sources at the end of the book. The tawdry anecdotes about Reagan’s sex life and Nancy’s temper are probably from Kitty Kelley’s Nancy Reagan, the Unauthorized Biography, yet the authors imply that they could just as well be from the Miller Center’s landmark Oral History Project on the Reagan Presidency -- which they definitely are not.
The relationship between cause and effect is just as blurry. During the 1964 presidential campaign, Reagan stumped for Barry Goldwater and delivered a televised address, “A Time for Choosing.” That speech, the authors write, “will not only change the course of Ronald Reagan’s life but also make him a marked man.” (page 57) In developing a parallel narrative on the life of John Hinckley, however, the authors stress that he had targeted Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter and the United States Capitol but did not really think about Reagan until the day of their fateful encounter. How, then, did Reagan’s 1964 speech make him a “marked man”? In that speech and in many of his public statements and now-available private correspondence, Reagan expressed his desire both to eradicate communism and abolish nuclear weapons. Yet the authors ignore that evidence, perhaps because it does not fit with their argument that the March 1981 assassination attempt changed everything. “The former leader of the free world, the man who defeated Soviet communism and ended the Cold War, is dead,” they write about 2004. What is the takeaway message of this book -- that the Soviet Union would still be around were it not for John Hinckley? That would certainly be a novel addition to the historiography on the end of the Cold War.
Killing Reagan’s prose is on par with its logic. “So it is that John Warncock Hinckley Jr. is born in an obsolete mental hospital,” the authors write on page 60. “At first glance, the baby appears to be completely normal.” Who is glancing? Were the authors there? We don’t find out, in any case; that’s the end of chapter 6. “Reagan is firmly in command,” the authors write on page 153, to close chapter 16. “Or so it seems to those around him. Little does he know the violence that lies ahead.” I do not envy authorship of those sentences.
I also find it puzzling that Bill O’Reilly, a highly articulate foil to liberals, would sign off on a book hastily written that shows such disdain for Ronald Reagan and his family. My favorite part of the book is the use of a trio of American flags as section breaks. I also liked the handsome maps with an overlay of events on Chappaquiddick Island in July 1969 and in the South Atlantic in April - June 1982. I do not know what these maps and chapters surrounding them have to do with Reagan and the end of the Cold War, but I hope that cartographer returns for whatever is next. Perhaps O’Reilly and Dugard, authors of Killing Jesus, Killing Kennedy, and Killing Patton, will take a break from Killing and embark on a new series. In the meantime, those eager for Living Reagan ought to check out the Reagan Foundation’s website, where you can read -- for free -- the fortieth president’s daily schedule and personal diaries.
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