Bill O'Reilly's Civil War

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Boyer

The Fox host thinks America is in dire straits--and what it needs is a history lesson.

When Bill O'Reilly went to Fox News looking for work in 1996, Roger Ailes, chief of the startup cable network, asked him whether he could avoid getting into fistfights in the hallway. O'Reilly was known in the business as a born broadcaster but one whose career had been defined by pique. As an anchor at a Boston station, he'd once grabbed a disagreeable management consultant by the necktie and dragged him across the newsroom.

At Fox, O'Reilly channeled his rage into the self-designated role of national sentry, with the nightly mission, as he puts it, of "protecting the people" against an assortment of malefactors (who tend to be representatives of the bicoastal "liberal elite").

Fifteen years into the role, O'Reilly's success--his primetime cable competitors don't come close to his ratings--has brought wealth and, as he is happy to assert, the power of influence. "I have more power than anybody other than the president, in the sense that I can get things changed, quickly," he says. "I don't have to go through the legislative process; I don't have to do any of that. I can just bring it to the people, and say, look, this has gotta be dealt with."

Even so, O'Reilly lately found the nation in such dire straits ("It is chaos ... chaos") that he believed something more was required of him: he would write a book of history.

He already had a string of books to his credit, mostly derived from his broadcast, The O'Reilly Factor. The most recent, the memoir A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity, made it to the top of the national bestseller lists. These books, typical of the genre, intend to tax neither author nor reader; if you watch the show, you've pretty much read the book.

But his new book, Killing Lincoln, co-written by the historian Martin Dugard, marks a bold, even fresh, literary turn, signified principally by the fact that Bill O'Reilly is not in it. "In this time when we're struggling for leadership--and whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, you know that we are struggling with leadership in America--we need to go back to a guy like Abraham Lincoln and understand what made him great," O'Reilly says.

After the taping of his broadcast one recent evening, O'Reilly opined on the current uses of historical narrative. His large corner office on the 17th floor of the News Corp. building in New York, with a broad Sixth Avenue view, is itself a kind of history lesson, its walls filled with rare, signed presidential letters, photographs, and lithographs, hung alongside a homemade Viet Cong banner and the last flag of the Republic of South Vietnam to fly at the American Embassy in Saigon.

O'Reilly, now 62, says Americans are ill equipped to make wise decisions ("History in the public-school system now? Forget it") in choosing their leaders, and that a dose of Lincoln--"the gold standard of leadership"--may help. But he has not gone suddenly egghead. Killing Lincoln is not a work of original scholarship or of breakthrough insight; it is meant to be a page-turner, modeled after the thrillers of John Grisham. "That's the kind of books I like," he says.

He mostly succeeds in that regard, in the sense that if Grisham wrote a novel about April 1865--a tiny span densely packed with history, from Appomattox to the Lincoln assassination and the hunting down of John Wilkes Booth--it might well read like Killing Lincoln. O'Reilly and Dugard collaborated on the project via email and telephone and wrote it in six months. If it sells, O'Reilly says, he plans a series of such books.

"I have one of the best presidential collections, but I don't like to give it a lot of publicity," he said. "I don't want people breaking into my house." Security is of grave concern to O'Reilly, who told me that he has 24-hour protection "because people want to kill me. …