Bill O’Reilly is one of the greatest marketing geniuses of our time. The one-time host of an entertainment television program, O’Reilly is now, of course, host of the blockbuster “O’Reilly Factor” on FOX. He has also garnered a reputation as a bestselling author with his series of “Killing” books. The latest, “Killing Reagan,” is another smash hit, but also one with controversy (which O’Reilly relishes and uses to his advantage).
It is important to note the contribution of O’Reilly’s co-author, Martin Dugard. Co-authors and ghostwriters tend to get lost in the shuffle and in actuality become almost ghosts themselves.
Now to the book. As in “Killing Kennedy” and “Killing Patton,” O’Reilly uses masterful research with expert narrative to really draw the reader in. This is the perfect book to blow an afternoon on, as you gain a different perspective about the people around the nation’s 40th president, himself now an icon in America.
The story begins with the poignant final moments of Reagan’s life. Afflicted with Alzheimers for the better part of a decade, Reagan died at his Bel Air home on June 5, 2004, almost 20 years to the day he delivered a stirring speech on the cliffs above Normandy. The contrast in Reagan and what passes for leadership in this country today is as wide as the English Channel, and even his political foes knew that the man had it.
(A very minor criticism: the book opens with Reagan in his last moments: “The man with one minute left to live is no longer confused.” It’s a great line. But a variation is repeated at the beginning of Chapter 1, which recounts a presidential debate in 1980. Note to writers: a slick piece of writing is not always meant to be repeated; it loses some punch.)
O’Reilly and Dugard know how to tell a story. The scene from Reagan’s first inaugural/coronation is mesmerizing:
Ronald Reagan stares at the elephant in the room. It stands thirteen feet tall and measures twenty-seven feet from trunk to tail. It took thirteen four-inch bullets to kill him. The Fénykövi elephant, as the regal animal is known, is poised for battle in the center of this festive rotunda. Its flanks are draped in patriotic red, white, and blue bunting, making it the very symbol of the Republican Party. The other symbol of the party stands at a lectern bearing the official seal of the president of the United States of America. Ronald Wilson Reagan gazes out over the hundreds of supporters dressed in formal wear who have come to celebrate his inauguration. He wears white tie and tails. Nancy Reagan, on his right, is draped in a white satin sheath that took a team of dressmakers four weeks to embroider. Her full-length Maximilian mink coat and alligator handbag are backstage, watched over by the Secret Service. Unbeknownst to the crowd, Nancy’s outfit for the evening costs close to twenty-five thousand dollars.
Although much is made of Reagan’s mental faculties, “Killing Reagan” is also a masterstroke in detailing just how much the president knew, and when he knew it, with regard to foreign policy, the capstone of his legacy. Reagan stared-down the Soviets, and when O’Reilly and Dugard recount a televised 1980 interview with Walter Cronkite, who sounded like an apologist for Moscow, Reagan stepped up to the plate with a superb command of the facts, which left Cronkite looking less like Uncle Walter and more like Uncle Joe.
Such moments in “Killing Reagan” reveal a man far different from the often hostile media portrayals. And yes, many of Reagan’s inner circle of key advisors have taken exception with certain conclusions drawn in “Killing Reagan,” but I think it’s a terrific look at the most important politician of our time.
Many Americans have been touched by the devastating disease of Alzheimers, and this particular aspect of “Killing Reagan” is especially helpful. Presidential legacies are tightly protected by some, but Reagan’s mental decline seems to be traced to his time in the White House. In “Killing Reagan,” we hear about his 1987 Oval Office address in which he seems to give a nod to the disease which would claim his memory, telling the American people that he didn’t recall certain details of the Iran-Contra affair.
Many believed him and do to this day.
Ronald Wilson Reagan became an American institution, and the effort to make the man accessible has been accomplished in a big way with “Killing Reagan.” No doubt the old man himself would have enjoyed reading it.
See the mention of this book review by Bill O’Reilly: