Publius / November 11, 2015

O’Reilly Libels Reagan

George Will takes the Fox host to task for revisionist history.

George Will tackled the subject of Bill O'Reilly’s New York Times best-selling “biography” of Ronald Reagan with two columns eviscerating the Fox News blowhard for shoddy work parroting liberal rumors and innuendo about the former president. (And Will isn’t the only one; numerous historians have likewise looked askance at O'Reilly’s work.) “Styling himself an ‘investigative historian,’ O'Reilly purports to have discovered amazing facts that have escaped the notice of real historians,” Will notes in his first column. The crux of the problem, Will says in his second column, is this: “O'Reilly ‘reports’ that the trauma of the assassination attempt was somehow causally related to the ‘fact’ that Reagan was frequently so mentally incompetent that senior aides contemplated using the Constitution’s 25th Amendment to remove him from office. But neither O'Reilly nor [co-author Martin] Dugard spoke with any of those aides — not with Ed Meese, Jim Baker, George Shultz or any of the scores of others who could, and would, have demolished O'Reilly’s theory. O'Reilly now airily dismisses them because they ‘have skin in the game.’ His is an interesting approach to writing history: Never talk to anyone with first-hand knowledge of your subject.”

More damning, Will writes, “Instead, O'Reilly made the book’s ‘centerpiece’ a memo he has never seen and never tried to see until 27 days after the book was published. Then Dugard asked the Reagan Library to find it.” How does one purport to write the authoritative work on a subject one has not even tried to see?

“Tidying up after O'Reilly could be a full-time job but usually is not worth the trouble,” Will concludes. “When, however, O'Reilly’s vast carelessness pollutes history and debases the historian’s craft, the mess is, unlike O'Reilly, to be taken seriously.”

Not that O'Reilly will go quietly (he never does). In a contentious exchange on his own TV show, O'Reilly ends by shouting Will down with the insult, “You’re a hack.” The truth is the other way around.

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