COMMENTARY | Here’s a quick trivia quiz: 1) Who assassinated Abraham Lincoln? 2) Who assassinated John F. Kennedy? 3) What did Abraham Lincoln do for colleges in the United States? 4) What was John F. Kennedy’s “Alliance for Progress” program?
If you knew the answer to questions one and two, but were stumped by the third and fourth question, consider don’t be too hard on yourself. We have a publishing industry that seems to have a fetish for how important figures die, as opposed to how they lived and what they stood for.
The latest example of these came from Bill O’Reilly. Fresh from the success of his 2011 book “Killing Lincoln,” which was turned into a National Geographic television special earlier this year was followed by the book “Killing Kennedy,” both co-authored by Martin Dugard.
I’m sure you might see this as an anti-conservative diatribe because of the conservative leanings of the lead author, who has his own program on Fox News. But these two are hardly alone. Oliver Stone took on the subject of Kennedy’s assassination in “JFK,” a movie that had little to do with the subject title and what he did, and a lot more about a conspiracy. The same could be said of Robert Redford’s movie “The Conspirator.”
Now comes word that O’Reilly and Dugard will work together on a new project, “Killing Jesus,” which will likewise hit the small screen on the National Geographic Channel.
Why should we care? Aren’t they just giving the public what they want?
First, “Killing Lincoln” has been faulted for a slew of factual errors. If one involves sloppy research, a production of Kennedy’s and Jesus’ deaths full of inaccuracies could be forthcoming.
Second, these productions on assassinations could push aside not only what leaders stand for, but also lead for the romanticized versions over scholarly research. In reviewing “Killing Lincoln,” noted author Nelson DeMille wrote, “As a history major, I wish my required reading had been as well written as this truly vivid and emotionally engaging account of Lincoln’s assassination.” Imagine a review of “Killing Jesus” where someone writes, “This was far more interesting than that dusty old version in the Bible.”
Third, such an obsession with assassinations could trigger another wave of similar attacks. There was a time where people wouldn’t glorify or even focus on the shooter. We cared more for the message than the person who killed the messenger. Few know who killed Mohandas Gandhi, John Lennon, and few outside of trivia buffs could remember who shot Martin Luther King Jr. Yet we all know that they stand for. Imagine if we gave more interest to Pilate and King Herod than Jesus.
As to questions 3 and 4, Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Act, which helped states create a number of land-grant colleges, while Kennedy’s “Alliance for Progress” promoted economic development and democracy in Latin America.
John A. Tures is an associate professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.