So. I have finally read Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Reagan: The Violent Assault That Changed a Presidency.
Before the Paris attack that has, sensibly, reminded of the real world — something Ronald Reagan never lost sight of — Fox’s O’Reilly was in the news for challenges to the historical accuracy of his book. The charges first surfaced here with an article co-written by Reagan historians Craig Shirley, Kiron Skinner, Paul Kengor, and Steven F. Hayward.
Then Washington Post columnist and fellow Fox personality George Will upped the ante with not one column (here) but two (here) And in between the two Will columns going after O’Reilly was the sulfurous O’Reilly-Will exchange on O’Reilly’s TV show, found here at the Daily Caller. Recently, biographer Craig Shirley has given an interview to the Washington Examiner in which he bluntly labels Killing Reagan a “bunch of garbage.”
O’Reilly has since gone on to attack the Washington Post, specifically saying that not only did the paper refuse to run his rebuttal to all of this but that the paper’s publisher and CEO, Fred Ryan, has a conflict of interest because Ryan is a former Reagan aide. O’Reilly has published his rebuttal over here at his own website. Says O’Reilly:
It is preposterous to assert that there wasn’t an intense concern about the president’s mental state shortly after the Iran Contra scandal broke. That is a fact, and it is disturbing that Reagan loyalists have attacked us for pointing it out.
But here’s something ever more troubling: the report written by James Cannon has disappeared. It is not in the Reagan Library, nor is it to be found in the papers of Howard Baker and Cannon. It is clear to us that someone did not want history to record it. It is also clear that misguided people are trying to distort the record by covering up a very important time in Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
I have no idea where this memo is. But Cannon was never a Reagan staffer so his papers would not be in the Reagan Library. Maybe he destroyed it, no idea again. But I would respectfully suggest that the “intense concern about the president’s mental state” came from people who had, to use an O’Reilly phrase, “skin in the game.” They were, one suspects, Don Regan loyalists — and with their patron fired and angrily departed, this was their revenge. Howard Baker, no fool, was astute enough to figure this out.
To do the requisite full disclosure, I too am an ex-Reagan aide. In fact I was in the Reagan White House at the time of O’Reilly’s focus in this book — which he calls the book’s “centerpiece.” That centerpiece would be the allegation that Reagan was so out of it “a lot of days” that he simply stayed put in the Residence and watched soaps and old TV shows. Because of this, O’Reilly asserts, there was serious thought given to a move to invoke the 25th amendment, declare Reagan unable to fulfill his duties — and remove him.
What’s missing in the O’Reilly account? A lot — all of it revolving around the controversial Reagan White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan. Regan, an ex-chairman of Merrill Lynch and Reagan’s first Secretary of the Treasury, is presented here as always at odds with an iron-fisted Nancy Reagan. Doubtless this is true. But there is no focus on why this was so.
O’Reilly reports that “the national press has begun a scathing series of broadsides against Nancy Reagan, blaming her for masterminding the recent firing of White House chief of staff Don Regan.” Regan, as presented by O’Reilly, is a “tough Boston Irishman” who was “constantly fighting Nancy Reagan and the messes she created.”
One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry here. The fact of the matter is that in the day there was a belief that President Reagan had made a mistake — in appointing Regan as his chief staff. Mrs. Reagan soon came to this belief herself. Regan could be a charming man, but as was noted at the time by one of my colleagues, he was utterly without the political skills required of a White House Chief of Staff. Arriving in the White House to replace James Baker, Regan brought his own coterie of loyalists from the Treasury Department. They quickly acquired their own nickname — “The Mice” — for their obsequious behavior with Regan. Regan himself suddenly moved the Chief of Staff front and center, his emphasis on the word “chief” instead of the word “staff.” Mrs. Reagan was far from alone in believing Regan saw himself as the deputy president.
Among other things his presence at formal White House ceremonies was now announced like the President. Before attendees heard “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States” they heard “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Chief of Staff to the President of the United States, the Honorable Donald T. Regan.” Regan became the first chief of staff to receive Secret Service protection — at his insistence. He managed in short order to make enemies everywhere he went — Capitol Hill in particular. All the while boasting of his own importance and that he ran the White House as the “chief operating officer.” A staff member he did not consider himself to be.
While he was still Treasury Secretary in the summer of 1984, I was working for Reagan’s ex-Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis. Lewis was charged with being the White House Liaison to the GOP platform, which meant spending the week before the Dallas GOP Convention opened working with the Platform Committee. A battle broke out over future tax policy (resolved with the strategic placing of a comma), which dominated the news. During one break in the proceedings, Lewis took a call from Regan, who was in Washington. The good Secretary was furious at the idea that elected delegates to the Convention would be discussing tax policy — which he saw as infringing on his role as Treasury Secretary. He launched a furious tirade on the phone, threatening to come to Dallas in person and raise holy hell. Lewis held the phone out so I could here the explosion on the other end. Lewis finally persuaded Regan he should not come to Dallas and attack the delegates, hanging up finally and rolling his eyes.
After the election there was much thought that Lewis would replace Jim Baker. When the Baker-Regan job switch was announced, Lewis had a phone conversation with Baker in my presence, noting that while he thought the Treasury job was a good fit for Baker he, Lewis, didn’t think the idea of Regan as chief of staff was a good idea for the President. As events would prove — Lewis was right.
Not a word of any of this is in O’Reilly’s book. The notion that the famous — and apparently missing — Jim Cannon memo wondering about Reagan’s ability to perform his job was anything other than the result of furious Regan aides — angry at their boss’s abrupt dismissal — is not considered.
On November 20, 1986, the White House political staff met with the president for a year’s end photo and brief discussion of the election returns. The Iran-Contra scandal was raging. Contrary to the image O’Reilly presents of a doddering idiot, the President was totally sharp, warm, and good-humored. The White House photographer was present, snapping away. As the meeting was ending, along with a handful of colleagues I was trapped behind the President’s chair, waiting to move out. The President rose and began to chat, making some small joke that caused us all to laugh. The photographer caught the moment (see above). Seconds later the President turned serious, holding up his hand and asking us to stay in place a moment. “I want you to know I’ve done nothing wrong,” he said firmly, looking us in the eye. He made it plain that he would get to the bottom of the situation — which he did with the appointment of the Tower Commission. Headed by Texas Senator John Tower. Again, at no time did the President appear befuddled or out of it in any fashion whatsoever. The reality of the Ronald Reagan I and my colleagues saw that day bears no resemblance to the man O’Reilly describes.
One of the standards that crossed my desk everyday was a copy of the President’s schedule. As I recall, it certainly looked normal to me. While all the fury was swirling about Iran-Contra, Reagan was always in evidence. On one occasion, welcoming the Super Bowl winning New York Giants to the White House he lamented for a moment that the Giants had their fans and that he, the President, had fewer fans these days. It was reflective, wistful — but hardly the mark of the man described in Killing Reagan.
Question. Do Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes despise Bill O’Reilly? As seen over here in this Politico story about a Murdoch biography, the answer is yes. Do I know if that’s true? No. For all I know its gossip. I’m taking a wild guess O’Reilly has another view altogether of the facts because he, O’Reilly, is there at Fox and knows the truth. Which is my point.
What O’Reilly has done here is commit the sin of omission. For whatever reason, the notion that the famous and still unfound Cannon memo was itself not true is just not considered. And a picture of Don Regan, his out-of-control ego that had him telling everybody in charge that he ran everything — until the Iran-Contra scandal burst and he then said he ran less than everything — is totally missing. There was widespread insistence that he be fired — it wasn’t just Nancy Reagan. This is totally missing from the book. In the day prominent Republicans who were decidedly not Reaganites — like Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana and House Republican Leader Bob Michel — were well out there in public saying Regan had to go. The New York Times ran a story on Regan’s problems quoting “a former White House aide” as saying: “Don Regan would never have got in this trouble if he hadn’t gone around telling everyone that he ran everything and knew everything.” Exactly.
All of this omission in Killing Reagan done, apparently, with the idea of making the central premise of the book — the failed assassination attempt on Reagan by John Hinckley — appear to have some sort of success. This is just baloney. As Reagan himself said in 1988 — as here in the Los Angeles Times, there was “no truth at all” to this story. White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said what those of us who were there in the day knew: “It speaks more to the state of mind of some of the staff here than it does about the President. The President was functioning at all times and there was no problem.” Thus the central premise of O’Reilly’s book was rejected out of hand by Reagan himself — 27 years ago.
O’Reilly clearly feels put upon at the criticism of his book. He accuses Reaganites of a “cabal” to protect the old boss. On its face this is laughable. The fact of history is that every president, most particularly those who have made a big impact in history — a Reagan, Lincoln, FDR, JFK etc. — have their reputations tossed about for all of eternity. Killing Reagan is going to do exactly nothing to tarnish Reagan’s reputation other than adding to the literature of Reagan books that tried to paint/smear Reagan as out-of-touch, a doddering old fool and so on. A view, as the four Reagan biographers indicate, that has been totally discredited. So sure — in that sense it’s good for historians and those of us who were there in the day to stand up and set the record straight. There is nothing of a “cabal” about it.
One can only shake one’s head in amazement at the reality O’Reilly refused to talk to the major players of the day — the Jim Bakers, George Shultzes, the George Bushes — because they had “skin in the game” of protecting Reagan. Not to put too fine a point on it, but O’Reilly has more than plenty of skin in this game. Specifically that would be the credibility of his Killing books and, yes, his television show. That’s a lot of skin in this game, and one cannot help but suspect his furious reaction to George Will (the angry charge on TV to Will that he is a “hack”) is because he believes that is exactly what is under assault. In fact, O’Reilly takes a sort-of swipe at Will in his book, saying that Will “behaves decades older than his forty three years.” So the back-and-forth between the two, one suspects, has more to it than a couple bad book reviews.
If there is a moral in this story it is a simple one. If you are writing history — don’t omit the facts to sell a book. That’s what has been done with Killing Reagan — and the criticism flows from that — and only that.