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George Will

O'Reilly makes mess of history

| Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

WASHINGTON

Were the lungs the seat of wisdom, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly would be wise, but they are not and he is not. So it is not astonishing that he is doubling down on his wager that the truth cannot catch up with him. It has, however, already done so.

The prolific O'Reilly has, with his collaborator Martin Dugard, produced five “history” books in five years, including the best-selling “Killing Reagan.”

Because no one actually killed Reagan, O'Reilly keeps his lucrative series going by postulating that the bullet that struck Reagan in March 1981 kind of, sort of killed him, although he lived 23 more years.

O'Reilly “reports” that the trauma of the assassination attempt was somehow causally related to the “fact” that Reagan was frequently so mentally incompetent that senior aides contemplated using the Constitution's 25th Amendment to remove him from office.

But neither O'Reilly nor Dugard spoke with any of those aides — not with Ed Meese, Jim Baker, George Shultz or any of the scores of others who could, and would, have demolished O'Reilly's theory.

Instead, O'Reilly made the book's “centerpiece” a memo he has never seen and never tried to see until 27 days after the book was published.

O'Reilly recently canceled an interview with Meese, who says O'Reilly told him he was “vetting” the memo. (How does one vet a memo one does not possess?)

O'Reilly says he canceled the interview because Meese set “conditions.” Meese, who was eager to be interviewed, waived any conditions.

The “centerpiece” memo was written by James Cannon at the request of former Sen. Howard Baker when Baker was about to replace the fired Don Regan as Reagan's chief of staff.

The memo assessing White House conditions apparently included disparagements of Reagan from some unhappy Regan staffers.

The memo was presented to Baker at a meeting at Baker's home attended by A.B. Culvahouse, who the next day would become counsel to the president.

Culvahouse remembers the normally mild-mannered Baker brusquely dismissing the memo: “That's not the Reagan I met with two days ago.”

O'Reilly began his profitable paltering with America's past with “Killing Lincoln.” Historians advising the National Park Service, which administers Ford's Theatre, found a multitude of errors in the first, uncorrected version, in which, for example, O'Reilly repeatedly places Lincoln in the Oval Office, which was built in 1909.

In “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald writes of Tom and Daisy Buchanan who “smashed up things” and then “retreated back into ... their vast carelessness ... and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Tidying up after O'Reilly could be a full-time job but usually is not worth the trouble.

When, however, O'Reilly's vast carelessness pollutes history and debases the historian's craft, the mess is, unlike O'Reilly, to be taken seriously.

George F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and Newsweek.

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