O’Reilly Responds To Critics Of ‘Killing Reagan’: ‘We Just Portrayed Him As A Man,’ Not ‘As God’
Bill O’Reilly is out with what will almost assuredly be a new bestselling book — and the Fox News host is not backing down from the criticism that has already been leveled or is likely to come.
In “Killing Reagan: The Violent Assault That Changed a Presidency,” O’Reilly and his co-author Martin Dugard explore Ronald Reagan’s life and presidency, with a special focus on John Hinckley’s attempted assassination in 1981 of the 40th president. But the book has already drawn some criticism from the right for, among other things, presenting Reagan as sometimes mentally incapable of performing his duties as president and suggesting his wife Nancy Reagan was a key driving force during his presidency.
“Well, I think we were pretty clear that by every account, Reagan had his good days and his bad days,” O’Reilly told The Daily Caller. “Nobody disputes that. On his bad days, he couldn’t work. On his good days, he was brilliant.”
In fact, O’Reilly says, a report commissioned by his staffers at the time concluded that some days he just watched “soap operas all day long” and “didn’t even come down from the residence.”
In the National Review, Annelise Anderson, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution who has written multiple books about Reagan, argued that O’Reilly’s book presents a distorted picture of Reagan.
“Why O’Reilly and Dugard want to present this distorted ‘witch and wimp’ view of Nancy and the 40th president of the United States is a puzzle to me, especially since an alternative view of the effect of Reagan’s near-death experience is so readily available,” she wrote of the idea that wife Nancy Reagan was a driving force behind Ronald Reagan’s success. “The authors will claim that the book is historically accurate; individual scenes (we may really be looking at a movie script here) might be accurate, or at least close. But it is in the selection, not just the telling, that history is written.”
Asked about historian Douglas Brinkley’s assessment that after reading through Reagan’s diary entries it was clear he was “more engaged and hands-on than previously supposed,” O’Reilly said he didn’t necessarily dispute the assessment.
“Yes, I think that’s true, that on certain days he was amazing on how engaged he was. But on other days, he wasn’t,” O’Reilly said. “I think that Brinkley absolutely told the truth, that he was aware of his circumstance, particularly in the bigger situations like the Soviet Union.”
O’Reilly says his critics are just upset that he didn’t present Reagan “as God.”
“The heat I got from ‘Killing Jesus’ was I didn’t talk about him as God,” O’Reilly told TheDC, responding to the criticism. “We didn’t do the resurrection, we just did Him as a man. Well, the heat I’m getting from ‘Killing Reagan’ is that I didn’t do him as God. We just portrayed him as a man, and all men have strengths and weaknesses.”
In the end, O’Reilly says even with all his faults, Reagan ranks as one of America’s 10 greatest presidents.
“He’s a top 10 guy because of his foreign policy successes, because of his rebuilding the nation’s image, the amount of affection regular folks in both parties held,” he argued.
Below, see the full transcript of part one of TheDC’s interview with O’Reilly on his book and the criticism leveled against it. Check back tomorrow to see the second and final part of TheDC’s interview, where the Fox News host discusses Donald Trump, the 2016 presidential race and whether he will ever run for office himself.
The Daily Caller: How did you settle on Reagan for this installment in your “Killing” series?
Bill O’Reilly: Well, we were kicking around a few ideas and then I put Martin Dugard, my co-author, on a research for about a month. I said see what you come up with that’s different that people don’t know. We came up with so much that we had to leap frog. We were going to do another book first before “Killing Reagan,” and then we said no, this is too good. We’ve got to get this out, particularly in an election year. You know, that’s what we do, investigative history. We try to write books that are entertaining, but tell people stuff they don’t know.
TheDC: What was your most compelling discovery?
O’Reilly Well, the centerpiece of the book is the meeting that Reagan’s advisers held with James Cannon, who was commissioned to investigate Reagan, and whether he was still up to the job. This was in his second term as he kind of went downhill. That is just a fascinating thing that he was almost removed because he sometimes couldn’t do the job. Then he made this almost miraculous comeback that we attribute to the Soviet Union and his desire to bring down that “evil empire.” It’s an amazing turnaround. That I think was the most startling thing. Vice President Bush didn’t even know about it, but they commissioned Cannon. Cannon came in and said, “you know what, a lot of days he’s not able to do his job. He doesn’t even come down from the residence. He watches soap operas all day long.” So we put that in and once we had that, that was the centerpiece of the book.
NEXT PAGE: Read The Rest Of The Interview
TheDC: I want to get back to that scene a little bit later in the interview, because I think it’s crucial. But tell me first about John Hinckley, obviously the attempted killer of Reagan in “Killing Reagan.” Was he crazy or evil — or both — in your opinion?
O’Reilly : Evil, I think, number one. Obviously mentally unbalanced. Crazy? I mean, he’s the same as [John F. Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey] Oswald. They’re the same person. He goes to the gun range. He starts to become proficient in handguns. He then puts down a list of people he wants to kill: Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy. And he planned it, that he was going to do something like this. Now the reason is because he wanted to impress his Jodie Foster. That’s kind of loopy, but he was cognizant enough to take step A and B and C and D and E, just like Oswald. Same delusions of grandeur and alienation. I mean, it’s amazing the similarities between the two men. So I wouldn’t say the guy was crazy. I would say he was neurotic and psychotic, but not crazy.
TheDC: Now he is still living. Did you make any attempt to try to interview him?
O’Reilly: We concentrated more on his parents and recollections that they had rather than him because, again, you’re not going to get into that with him. He’s not going to tell you the truth. These guys, you know, they manipulate it, like Charles Manson. You want to sit down and interview him? He’s not going to tell you the truth. I mean, you go by what happened by people who don’t have any kind of agenda to tell you “well, look, this is what happened. Here’s how it happened.” You know, we get into this guy’s life as you know, Jamie, in great detail: what he did, how he did it, where he was, all of that. So it really didn’t behoove us to go in and listen to this guy spout a bunch of nonsense.
TheDC: Let me play devil’s advocate a little bit and lay out some of the criticisms of the book, or criticism that is likely to come.
TheDC: One of the interesting aspects of the book to me, something that was new to me, was the womanizing charges about Reagan, particularly how you report that he cheated on his wife, Nancy Reagan, including on the very day their daughter Patti was born. How do you know that and how confident are you in reporting that?
O’Reilly : We double-sourced everything with names. We didn’t use any blind sources at all. And it’s all in the book, in the back of the book, where it came from. Everything is there. There really wasn’t any deniability about it. You know, Nancy mentioned it to friends. Friends wrote about it. Friends put their names on it.
The key about “Killing Reagan,” everybody has to know is, there are no anonymous sources in the book. None. Dugard’s charge was not one person can say it; two people at least. So they can say whatever they want, but what we write is fact. We used a lot of footnotes in “Killing Reagan,” and all the stuff in the back shows you where the research came from.
And I don’t think you’re going to get anybody disputing the fact that in the early part of the Reagan marriage, when it was just getting going, there were some problems. But then once he entered politics, then it changed.
And there was a charge, and I wouldn’t put in the book, by a woman who actually wrote a book about it, that he had done something while he was governor. I said to Dugard, “Look, is there any independent confirmation of this? No.” I mean, they knew they were together; they were seen together at a party, but that could happen to anybody. I said we’re not going to do it. We’re not going to put it in. We’re not going to put her story in. Why would we do that? And then I put in a line just to clarify saying that Reagan’s behavior as governor of California was almost beyond reproach, and it was. So there was a change. Once he got into a position of responsibility, he himself became more responsible.
TheDC: You seem to anticipate some of the criticism of the book, at least as it relates to Reagan’s mental state was during his presidency. At the very end of the book, you include a letter from Ronald Reagan from the end of his presidency trying to fight back up against this idea that he was not in charge of his White House. But throughout your book, you do get the sense that Reagan was beset by early-onset Alzheimer’s during his presidency and wasn’t exactly in control of the White House. Maybe Nancy Reagan was more in control, according to your account. Is that what you intended to convey?
O’Reilly: Well, I think we were pretty clear that by every account, Reagan had his good days and his bad days. Every account. Nobody disputes that. On his bad days, he couldn’t work. On his good days, he was brilliant. So you begin there, and then you say, “All right, what is the over-arch of it?” So did he know about Iran-Contra? We don’t believe he did. Should he have known about it? Yeah, but he didn’t, because he wasn’t interested in that. That’s not what he was there to do. He was interested in the bigger pictures, the bigger things — the economy, the Soviet Union, his relationships with Margaret Thatcher and others. So we didn’t dwell on that kind of stuff. I mean, we don’t say, “well, Iran-Contra blah, blah, blah.” We don’t do that. Other people can do that. We just paint the picture of him in the White House.
Now, was he in charge? Yes, he was. It wasn’t anybody, you know, sinister behind the scenes. Did Nancy have an enormous amount of power? Yes she did, because anybody coming in she had to okay to see him face-to-face, and that’s an enormous amount of power. But she didn’t make policy. Nancy Reagan wasn’t making policy. He had good guys around him, Reagan. They were rooting for him. It wasn’t a lot of people even when Donald Regan resigned, you know, there wasn’t, you know “I hate them.” Like [George W.] Bush got a couple of shots by people, Bush the younger, that worked for him. Reagan didn’t really get that.
TheDC: Let me just press you on this. To what degree did you factor in some of the newer scholarship on Reagan, like his diaries that were released? Historian Douglas Brinkley, who was the editor of the diaries and no conservative, said reading through those diaries, he found Reagan “more engaged and hands on than previously supposed.”
O’Reilly: Yes, I think that’s true, that on certain days he was amazing on how engaged he was. But on other days, he wasn’t. I think that Brinkley absolutely told the truth, that he was aware of his circumstance, particularly in the bigger situations like the Soviet Union.
But look, the key part of that is, Roger Ailes, my own boss, Reagan got his butt kicked the first debate with [Walter] Mondale, and there was panic. They hired Ailes to come in and turn it around, which he did. I know Ailes really well. We interviewed him for the book. You can see it, you can read it. And I said to him, I said, “Look, is there anything in here that strikes you as not accurate?” Because we were playing the devil’s advocate while we were writing and researching as well. And he goes, “No, when I got him, he just wasn’t focused. We re-focused him. He went out, he kicked butt, and it was a landslide victory.” That was Reagan’s talent or that was Reagan’s gift, maybe that’s a better word. Reagan could turn it around as fast as anybody in history. But he wasn’t always, always there.
TheDC: Have you heard from Nancy Reagan about the book?
O’Reilly: No, Nancy’s elderly. It’s almost like my mom, who just passed away. She’s not really engaged on any of this stuff, which is the way it should be.
TheDC: How about Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz or anyone that was on the inside of the Reagan administration?
O’Reilly: Haven’t heard anybody really dissent or anything like that. It’s been mostly, the reviews have been very good, very positive from people who have read the book. The dissenters are the people who — it almost parallels the book “Killing Jesus.” The heat I got from “Killing Jesus” was I didn’t talk about him as God. We didn’t do the resurrection, we just did Him as a man. Well, the heat I’m getting from “Killing Reagan” is that I didn’t do him as God. We just portrayed him as a man, and all men have strengths and weaknesses.
TheDC: Did you ever have the opportunity to meet Reagan while he was alive?
O’Reilly: No, but I covered him. I was at the second inauguration, but I did not ever meet him. I met Vice President Bush, you now, and I was not a Reagan expert by any means. And that’s why I had to lean heavily on Dugard. He’s out in California. But I myself went to the ranch and talked to a lot of the secret service guys myself who guarded Reagan. That was amazingly instructive. Didn’t use much of that stuff by the way because they didn’t want to put their names on it. That broke my heart, but I wouldn’t do it. I’m not using anonymous sources.
TheDC: How do you assess Reagan historically as a president? Where do you think he ranks?
O’Reilly: Top 10.
TheDC: Top 10?
O’Reilly: Yes, he’s a definitely a top 10 president depending on your view of turning the economy around, which I think was just spectacular, because Carter had ruined it so badly. And we’re going to need another Reagan to come out of the Obama economy absolutely. It’s almost a parallel situation. He’s a top 10 guy because of his foreign policy successes, because of his rebuilding the nation’s image, the amount of affection regular folks in both parties held — [Speaker of the House] Tip O’Neill on the Democratic side. We didn’t get into the politics too much of Reagan. I wanted to tell the story about the man rather than the politics surrounding him. But I would say he definitely was in the top 10.
This interview has been very lightly edited for clarity and brevity.