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O’Reilly’s “Killing Reagan”: Fiction, Posing as Biography

by Ed Meese & John Heubusch     •     RealClearPolitics

There are over a thousand books on the subject of Ronald Reagan and his presidency. This is not surprising given that our 40th president is routinely cited in Gallup polls alongside George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt as one of America’s most admired presidents.

Some books such as Lou Cannon’s “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime,” or Martin and Annelise Anderson and Kiron Skinner’s “Reagan in His Own Hand,” and most recently, “Last Act” by Craig Shirley offer keen insight into the man and benefit those seeking an accurate picture of the Reagan years. Unfortunately, Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s latest offering, “Killing Reagan,” is not among them.

We have watched numerous television interviews of Mr. O’Reilly since the release of “Killing Reagan” to assess the reasons he wrote the book. O’Reilly calls himself an “investigative historian” and claims such an approach “offers something new.” But there is “new” and there is “accurate”—and it’s unwise to confuse the two. O’Reilly says what he’s discovered is that for some of the time Reagan was in office, he was incapacitated to the point that it was questionable whether he could capably serve in the role of president of the United States.

But this assertion is neither new nor accurate. The “investigative historian” has swung and missed. One need only turn to “Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984-1988” by Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus to learn that during Reagan’s second term, a memo (not a “study” as O’Reilly puts it) written by a newly arrived White House staffer suggested that Reagan’s diminished mental capacity compromised his ability to effectively perform as president. A shocking allegation to be sure, were it true. The historical record proves that it was not.

First, some context: In the spring of 1987, White House chief-of-staff Howard Baker did exactly what one would expect of an incoming top adviser to the president. He commissioned a member of his staff to interview White House aides to determine the disposition of the Office of the President. Where do key problems lie? What are the fundamental issues to be addressed? How should the office organize itself?

What we learned from “Landslide” is that this staffer, James Cannon, went beyond his initial charge to assess the White House operation and began collecting gossip and rumors about the president. Cannon hears second-hand and third-hand innuendo that led him to question the president’s mental capacity. In his memo, Cannon highlights the concerns he has heard and suggests, incredibly, that the 25th Amendment—the one about relieving the president of his duties—might be in order.

And so, on March 2, 1997, Howard Baker and James Cannon, along with two other White House aides—Thomas Griscom and A.B. Culvahouse—bracketed the president at a meeting in the Cabinet Room to watch him closely. The Los Angeles Times later reported what happened next: “To Cannon’s surprise, Reagan seemed attentive and alert, charming and glib—the same Ronald Reagan he had known for years,” the paper reported.

The newspaper quoted Baker as saying that although he didn’t dismiss James Cannon’s concerns out of hand, he never seriously considered invoking the 25th Amendment because “from the first time I saw [Reagan] he was fully in control and I never had any question about his mental competence.”

The L.A. Times also identified the sources who gossiped about the president—aides to deposed White House chief-of-staff Don Regan. In other words, the people bad-mouthing the president were people who had been fired and were not happy about it.

Yet now, in describing the very genesis of his “Killing Reagan” book, Bill O’Reilly says that “Baker was worried [Reagan] wasn’t up to the job.” This is plainly not true. Culvahouse terms his account a “myth.”

“That was thoroughly discredited when it first appeared 27 years ago,” he told us. “It should be returned to the dust bin of fiction masquerading as history.”

Meanwhile, O’Reilly is doubling down on this disproven yarn. In interviews hawking this dubious product, he goes further than he does in his book. Pinching his fingers within an inch of each other during a recent television interview, O’Reilly maintained that Reagan “came that close” to being removed from office.

This is theater, not scholarship—just as “Killing Reagan” is historical fiction instead of biography. Here’s a quote from “Landslide,” one ignored by O’Reilly and collaborator, whom O’Reilly crows is “the world’s best researcher.” It’s James Cannon’s own final assessment of the entire episode:

Perhaps Donald Regan’s henchmen had exaggerated the president’s frailties, he thought. Perhaps they were trying to justify an internal coup, an arrangement whereby the chief of staff would make others believe he had been forced to act as a kind of regent for a disabled president. Could the president they described—the inattentive, incurious man who watched television rather than attending to affairs of state—be the same as the genial, charming man across the table? What the hell is going on here? Cannon wondered. The old fella looks just dandy.

To allege that a president of the United States was unfit to serve in the role is a serious accusation. How is it, in O’Reilly’s mind, Ronald Reagan could have become so incapacitated over the years? A single memo speculating on the president’s state of mind based on hearsay gathered by a staff person who considers he may have been duped by allegations quickly dismissed by the president’s own chief-of-staff? An entire book dedicated to an outrageous premise in a discredited memo of almost 30 years ago proven to be false? Not entirely.

“Killing Reagan,” you see, is the latest in an O’Reilly-Dugard franchise. “Killing Lincoln,” “Killing Kennedy,” “Killing Patton”— you get the idea. The difference in this book is that Reagan’s would-be assassin failed. Ronald Reagan did not die 10 weeks into his presidency when he was shot by John W. Hinckley on March 30, 1981. Reagan lived.

He survived and served: ending the air traffic controllers’ strike, cutting taxes, challenging the his Soviet counterpart to tear down the Berlin Wall—and then negotiating arms control agreements with that same Russian leader, signing a sweeping immigration law, winning reelection in a historic landslide, bringing the nation together with his stirring words after the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, and delivering a poignant farewell address as president that gave the credit for his vast success, not to his ability as the “Great Communicator,” but to the American people themselves.

“I wasn’t a great communicator,” he said, “but I communicated great things, and they didn’t spring full bloom from my brow, they came from the heart of a great nation—from our experience, our wisdom, and our belief in the principles that have guided us for two centuries.”

Despite all that—and volumes more—O’Reilly and Dugard stick to their hoary formula. The conceit of his book is that Ronald Reagan’s eventual incapacity stems from the fateful moment he was shot and wounded outside the Washington Hilton Hotel. It changes everything, O’Reilly claims, for a president he sneers was “an old guy to begin with.”

O’Reilly claims that Reagan was affected “psychologically” and “physically” by the ordeal but because he’s a good actor, he is able to hide this from everyone except Nancy Reagan. “Reagan looked like he was better and that he recovered miraculously, but he didn’t,” O’Reilly writes. The bullet that struck the president “accelerated” his eventual Alzheimer’s disease and even his death. If one is to believe this, almost the entirety of the Reagan presidency is adversely influenced by the shooting.

What medical evidence exists that shows Reagan had difficulty recovering from the surgery to remove the bullet, as Mr. O’Reilly alleges? Although we do now know that Reagan was closer to death than the world knew at the time, George Washington University doctors all maintain that he responded to treatments well and recovered in record time for a man of his age.

Is there any new evidence cited by O’Reilly of continued or abusive use of pain medications that could affect one’s judgment post-surgery? None. Is there evidence cited in the health records of Reagan’s annual physicals or workups related to his various surgeries (prostate, precancerous lesions, etc.) showing deterioration in the president’s health longer term due to his wounds? None. The Reagan Library archives contain over 66 million documents. His records have been reviewed by reputable doctors, and no such evidence has come to light. What then is the basis for O’Reilly’s statements that President Reagan suffered long term physical problems associated with the assassination?

Is there any medical evidence, doctors’ notes, counseling reports or any other such evidence in O’Reilly’s book indicating that Reagan suffered mentally or had emotional difficulty related to the assassination? No. Was he taking medications or anti-depressants that could impair his judgment? No. In fact, Dr. Robert Altman, longtime New York Times medical correspondent, looked for just such evidence and found none. “In my extensive interviews with his White House doctors, key aides and others, I found no evidence that Mr. Reagan exhibited signs of dementia as president,” he wrote. “No other family member—and not Edmund Morris, the official biographer who spent seven years with Mr. Reagan in the White House—publicly hinted that he showed evidence of Alzheimer’s as president.”

Notwithstanding O’Reilly’s claim that this latest installment in the “Killing” serial entailed “years of thorough research,” first-hand eyewitness accounts in the public record refuting O’Reilly’s theory are ignored. These extensive “research” methods evidently did not include interviewing cabinet officials and White House staff members who saw Ronald Reagan closely and regularly throughout his entire presidency.

For almost two full years after the discredited and disavowed James Cannon memo, there is not a single mention from a White House staff person, a credible book author, or physician that Reagan experienced even a single day where he was incapacitated or unable to serve. The Reagan Library archives contain schedules timed to every minute of Reagan’s presidency. Reagan himself personally kept a daily diary of his activities after each work day, one more extensive than any president in American history. Every schedule and every journal entry reveal the president as active, engaged and fully responsive to the demands of the presidency at all times. It’s a small miracle that three decades after the fact, Bill O’Reilly—in his spare time while moonlighting from his anchor’s chair—discovers a mentally impaired U.S. president whose unfitness to serve is hidden from his closest aides, friends, and political allies and opponents alike.

In sum, Bill O’Reilly offers no evidence whatsoever that President Reagan’s long-term physical or mental health were impacted in any way as a result of the assassination attempt as he suggests, nor is there any credibility to the assertion that Reagan was ever in a mental state while he was in office that would threaten his ability to serve. For these fundamental reasons we believe that “Killing Reagan” does a real disservice to our 40th president and to history itself.

Ed Meese served as counselor to the president (1981-1985) and as U.S. attorney general (1985-1988) during the Reagan presidency. John Heubusch is executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.