Updated: November 22, 2012 6:03AM
Bill O’Reilly describes himself as a journalistic “watchdog” and a “champion bloviator.”
He’s not a historian — “not really. That’s not my discipline,” he says in his corner office at Fox News, home of “The O’Reilly Factor,” the top-rated show on cable news.
But few history books can approach the popularity of O’Reilly’s “Killing Lincoln,” which has sold more than 2 million copies since it was released a year ago. His new book, “Killing Kennedy” (Henry Holt, $28), could be as popular.
Both accounts of presidential assassinations were co-written by Martin Dugard, who did most of the research, leaving the writing to O’Reilly, whose approach is to write “history that’s fun to read” in a “populist way. No pinheaded stuff, just roar it through!”
It’s history as fast-paced thriller, with dramatic foreshadowing in a you-are-there present tense. And, O’Reilly says, “it’s all true!”
A few historians questioned details and a lack of documentation in “Killing Lincoln.” O’Reilly, a former high school history teacher, says any errors, corrected in later editions, are “picayune.” The criticism, he says, is just jealousy.
“These guys toil in obscurity their whole lives, and a punk like me comes along and sells 2 million copies. They’re not happy.”
O’Reilly, 63, is to traditional history what best-selling novelist James Patterson is to literature. Neither gets much respect from academic types. Both say they don’t care — all the way to bank.
They also share a collaborator. Dugard (whom O’Reilly calls “the best researcher I could find — and I talked to all the top guys”) co-wrote Patterson’s 2009 non-fiction bestseller, “The Murder of King Tut,” about a 3,000-year-old mystery.
O’Reilly says he didn’t solve all the mysteries of the Kennedy assassination. He found no evidence of a conspiracy but stops short of ruling it out.
“I know that Oswald killed Kennedy. Now, was he pushed? Encouraged to do it by outsiders? Possibly. Possibly. Was he sitting down with Fidel Castro? No.”
But he adds, “There were people around Oswald who shouldn’t have been there.” He cites George de Mohrenschildt, a well-educated Russian immigrant with possible CIA connections, who “had ties to some very, very important people. Why is he hanging with this loser [Oswald]?”
O’Reilly’s biggest surprises were “how crazy, and I mean crazy,” Oswald was, and “how little the authorities did to protect Kennedy” in Dallas.
Two-thirds of the book deals with Kennedy’s presidency and private life, including his extramarital affairs. It portrays Kennedy as a pragmatic and decisive leader who treated sexual risks as “his carpe diem way of living life to the utmost.”
“I wanted to show the good and the bad,” O’Reilly says.
He says his biggest break was getting FBI agents who flooded Dallas after the assassination to share what they learned about Oswald.
He says that helped him understand the assassin, a former Marine who defected to Russia, then returned to the USA with his Russian-born wife, Marina.
For a taste of O’Reilly’s style, consider his description of Oswald on the eve of the assassination as he visits his estranged wife. As O’Reilly sets the scene, Oswald is undecided about shooting Kennedy as he begs his wife to take him back.
“But if she doesn’t, “ O’Reilly writes, “Oswald will be left with no choice.”
“That’s how delusional Lee Harvey Oswald’s world has become. He now deals only in absolutes: either live happily ever after — or murder the president.”
O’Reilly writes popular history “to get people engaged with their country.” He complains that few history books are fun to read: “Even the really good ones, by Robert Caro and these guys — I mean, they’re brilliant guys, but to get through 800 pages, you either have to be retired or on vacation for six weeks.”
For those keeping score, Caro’s fourth book on Lyndon Johnson, “The Passage of Power,” is 712 pages, including 79 pages of footnotes and sources. “Killing Kennedy” is 325 pages, including seven pages about its sources.
“The Passage of Power” landed on USA Today’s best-seller list at No. 15 and spent seven weeks in the top 150. “Killing Lincoln” landed on the list at No. 3 and has been in top 50 for 42 weeks.
No history book has sold so well since David McCullough’s 2001 biography, “John Adams,” which was adapted as an HBO miniseries. A two-hour version of “Killing Lincoln,” narrated by Tom Hanks, will be on National Geographic in February.
Gannett News Service