Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly has taken to writing historical novels about the assassinations of presidents. His two books “Killing Lincoln” and “Killing Kennedy” have both become New York Times best sellers. If you ever watch The O’Reilly Factor on Fox, you know that O’Relly pushes these books nightly on his show. He has a large base of viewers which helps him to move books off the shelves.
Whether you are a fan of O’Reilly’s or not, this book is, no doubt, a page turner. It reads like a thriller. John Wilkes Booth is portrayed as a fatally flawed character, who, with the right mindset could have everything in life that he wanted. He is a popular and attractive actor. He has a fiancee with whom he is in love. The future is bright for him. According to O’Reilly’s depiction of the man, his life will be good in post-war America. However, Booth, a Southern sympathizer, hates the president. He is a racist and he believes that Lincoln is a dictator. He cannot let go of his contempt for the president. He, along with some helpers, launches a conspiracy that will topple the head of the U.S. Government. Booth believes that killing the president is simply an act of war, not a heinous murder, and is therefore justified in doing so.
“Killing Lincoln” devotes a great deal of time away from the actual assassination plot and the persons of Lincoln and Booth. O’Reilly spends much time writing about the Army of Northern Virginia’s attempted escape from Petersburg, Virginia into the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. O’Reilly states that if Lee and his army escape to North Carolina, they can continue a guerrilla war indefinitely in the mountains. He then goes on to detail how Lee and his army try to escape, their desperate situation of exhaustion and hunger, and General Grant’s chase to stop Lee’s escape.
While this is tangential to the story of Lincoln’s assassination plot, it is excellent reading and a good build up for the coming events. It also helps us become familiar with General Grant, a person who is portrayed in the book as a friend of Lincoln, and a person who was almost with Lincoln in Ford’s Theater on the fateful night of the assassination. Moreover, we come to understand that the end of the Civil War was not definite at this point in the fight. Were Lee to have escaped, it may have continued for many more years, much like the guerrilla wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam. In this light, Lincoln’s assassination may have been viewed very differently through history.
Killing Lincoln details Booth’s plan for the assassination and how he expects to make his escape. It portrays him as flamboyant and charismatic. It also portrays him as a person without empathy, who does not care about others. O’Reilly introduces us to many other characters who we may not be familiar with who also play a part in the conspiracy and help Booth make his escape. He also shares with us that the plan is much larger and more sinister that history often tells us. Booth and his conspirators had planned to kill the President, the Vice President and the Secretary of State all in the same night.
O’Reilly shares the traits and attributes of each character of the book without emotion. He evaluates their strengths and makes known their shortcomings and flaws as well. While presenting each one forthrightly, he does not write in a condemnatory or laudatory tone. The book is neither an apology nor a condemnation. While he does decry certain actions and traits of characters, and helps to paint a vivid picture of brutish behavior, he does not make the decision for the reader nor does he ultimately judge the person.
A Civil War buff will want to read more extensively to get a fuller version of the life of Lincoln and the last days of the war. However, Killing Lincoln is an enjoyable survey and a good introduction to the larger body of literature that exists on the subject. It is a book that is written to be readable. It is not academic in its style. The book is co-written by Martin Dugard, who was also O’Reilly’s partner on Killing Kennedy.