Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly draws about 3 million viewers to his O'Reilly Factor program every weeknight, so expect both the faithful and the curious to turn out for his 12th book, Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot, when it is published by Henry Holt on Oct. 2.
See also: Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years
As he did in his previous work of popular history, Killing Lincoln (likewise coauthored with Martin Dugard), O'Reilly focuses almost exclusively on the president's truncated time in office. He also dusts off a narrative device from the first book — tracking both killer and target along separate but fatefully converging plot lines — to ratchet up the tension in Killing Kennedy.
O'Reilly's fascination with history will surprise only those unfamiliar with his memoir, A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity. There the veteran newsman (he recently celebrated his 63rd birthday) recounts majoring in history at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and spending a junior year abroad (1969-70) trying to get his fill of European history. O'Reilly also taught a course called Contemporary Problems — apt, right? — at Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami Gardens, Fla., from 1972 to 1973.
In a wide-ranging back-and-forth, O'Reilly talked about civics, politics, 20th-century history, his growing distaste for confrontation, his obsession with the country's past and his concern for its future. And, of course, why it would be best to stand well back if Dick Cheney went hunting with Lyndon Johnson.
Allan Fallow: What's the one question you'd ask John F. Kennedy if you could meet him?
Bill O'Reilly: The paradox on Kennedy is his dueling instincts. He's got the selfish, I'm-going-to-do-what-I-want-and-I-really-don't-give-a-rip-on-the-consequences-of-my-actions instinct, but then he's got the heroic, I'm-going-to-do-what-it-takes-to-right-the-wrong instinct. The clash between those two makes him a fascinating figure. So I would talk to him about that.
AF: Why did you choose to profile Kennedy next after Killing Lincoln?
BOR: I want to reengage Americans — particularly younger Americans — with their country. I want to bring alive the people they've heard of, so that the reader becomes fascinated and starts to take an interest.
Next: What O'Reilly learned about Jackie and Robert Kennedy. »
AF: Did your opinion of JFK change as you wrote the book?
BOR: I think my opinion of him was always ambivalent, but it probably got a little bit better.
AF: What about the others in the book? There are three principals around Kennedy — LBJ, RFK and Jackie — that you really bring to life.
BOR: I didn't know much about Jackie Kennedy, and now I do. That's the headline of the book — that she was a very noble woman. This was a woman of character and substance, who endured pain no human being should endure with dignity.
[As for] Robert Kennedy, I've always been a fan of his. I like the tough-guy, I'm-going-to-bring-down-the-bad-guys approach. I also wanted to clarify the Marilyn Monroe stuff and the other salacious gossip. We really dug hard, but we couldn't come up with anything that backed that up.
LBJ? In totality I think he was a flawed man. From the time he woke up to the time he went to bed, his every thought was about LBJ — and I think karma got him in the end. We portray him in a pretty stark way.
AF: That's funny, because you also seem to identify with LBJ as a fellow underdog.
BOR: Well, I understood the position he was in. But for all the things he accomplished in the civil-rights arena (and this may not be fair; he might have changed — I'm not Robert Caro), in the beginning he was using African Americans as a way to make the press identify him with doing good. That's where I separate from LBJ, and that's what separates LBJ from being a great man. If you really want to get things done and right wrongs in this world — and unfortunately, not too many people do — you've got to look outside yourself.
AF: So would you consider him and RFK "a team of rivals"?
BOR: Oh yeah! Oh, man — I mean, that story we tell about the hunting [incident] down in Texas, where LBJ leans over [to RFK, who's been knocked down by his shotgun recoil] and says, "You gotta learn to shoot like a man, boy!" Bobby was humiliated, but he couldn't do anything — think what that does to a guy like RFK!
AF: That reminds me of a line from your memoir: "The ground was as hard as Dick Cheney's heart." Who do you think would be scarier to go hunting with — Cheney or Johnson?
BOR: I'd like to see them go hunting together — I'd just want to stand way back. I'm not a hunter, but I would have liked to have been on that safari!
AF: Do you think they'd both come back?
BOR: They'd probably get along, those two. But you gotta throw Teddy Roosevelt in there too, although Teddy, I think, was much more of a thinker — and more of a guy who was looking outside himself than those other two.
AF: In the foreword to Killing Kennedy you write that "The assassination of JFK was somewhat personal for me." Give me some background on that.
BOR: When you're 13 years old and you're sitting in a classroom and all of a sudden the loudspeaker crackles and you're told the president's been shot, you never forget it. That's the advantage of a book like this: Everybody's going to be emotionally involved from the jump.
AF: That's right. I remember asking my third-grade teacher, "Does this mean the Russians are taking over?" I came home and found my mother dissolved in tears. I think that was the first time I'd ever seen her allow herself to get that emotional in front of her kids.
BOR: Right — and that's a powerful story in your life. We're trying to start there with every reader. Americans who weren't born yet have heard and seen enough — particularly in this age that glorifies glamour — that their appetites will be whetted.
When I write about Kennedy and Martin Luther King and their failings, I'm intensely aware of what I'm putting on paper. I don't do it to demean, but to tell the truth about America. I know I'm going to take heat on the book, because I take heat for everything I do, so you get used to that.
AF: But you savor the heat, don't you?
BOR: You know, not anymore! In the beginning it was all right, because I wanted to stir the pot and direct people to a different kind of presentation. But unfortunately, in this country we've gotten nasty. I put in the episode about Adlai Stevenson getting spit on in Dallas because I wanted to show people that even in 1963 there was this kind of political vitriol that we see today. The difference now, of course, is that we have the Internet, where that is celebrated, so it becomes more dangerous.
AF: You say you and coauthor Martin Dugard "want to make history accessible to everyone."
BOR: Yeah, and I think we do that. I selected Dugard for his lack of ideology. I wanted a Jack Webb kind of guy — "just the facts" — and that's what I got. In fact we're working on another book right now. I can't tell you what it is, because we don't want to get ripped off, but it's going to knock everybody's socks off. We'll announce it by Christmas.
AF: You taught high school in Florida for two years. Any chance you'll return to the classroom?
BOR: If I decide to retire from television, I don't want to sit around. I don't know if I would teach high school or college, or just go around the country and talk to kids in an assembly situation.
I'm lucky enough where I'm an icon: People aren't going to forget me, even if I go off TV; they're always going to know who I am or what I've done. The books I can write until I'm dead.
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