On the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln: Factoring in Bill O’Reilly’s Latest
Only rarely have I met or known an enthusiast of American history, certainly not back in my school days. So then, how to explain the enduring popularity of Killing Lincoln by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard, which has ensconced itself on The New York Times Best-seller List for a formidable thirty-six weeks as of this writing. Most people know Bill O'Reilly as the popular host of "The O'Reilly Factor" on the Fox News Channel. Yet few people are aware that O'Reilly was a history teacher before he entered the world of broadcast journalism. But love him or hate him, O'Reilly (and Dugard) serve up a riveting four-act tragedy as compelling as any suspense novel of recent memory.
We enter the story a mere fourteen days before the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The Confederate Army, under the command of Lee, is on wobbly last-legs; out of food and supplies, their uniforms and shoes in tatters, men (and horses) are falling or deserting daily as Lee leads them in an incessant, punishing march south toward the Carolinas, desperately attempting to save his soldiers' lives. Each step of the way, they are relentlessly pursued and pounded by Grant's larger and well-equipped army, forcing the Confederates to turn and fight yet again, refusing to accept what is inevitable. It is a heartbreaking first act, viewed from a boots-on-the-ground perspective. Meanwhile, Lincoln is desperate for the four-year war to end, so that the true healing of our divided nation can begin.
Lincoln hardly sleeps, his eyes are hollowed, he suffers bouts of depression, and he has lost thirty-five pounds from worry and dismay over this country he loves so dearly, and whose needless death of Americans on both sides tears him apart. Meanwhile, Confederate loyalists and spies conspire to kill Lincoln, so infuriated are they over his freeing of the slaves and the resultant changes to their beloved South. Lincoln is well aware his life is in mortal danger. His only solace is found in his love of Shakespeare, the simple and loyal dedication of his wife, Mary, and a few verses of daily reading from his tattered Bible.
Enter John Wilkes Booth, a flashy, good-looking bon vivant and actor, who is determined to kill Lincoln on behalf of the South, with the promise of his own egocentric immortality at stake. We discover the wheres and hows of Booth's recruitment and funding, the exquisite detailing of his fiendish plan, including a theatrical flair Booth will add to the finale, and his planned escape to Mexico, all in staggering detail. O'Reilly's telling of the final day is masterful, giving us an hour-by-hour interplay of the two main characters hurling toward their destiny. The narrative is swift and fully engrossing.
While O'Reilly's book is strictly nonpolitical, I find myself now pondering the differences between Lincoln, one of America's greatest Presidents, and today's political leaders.