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February 13, 2012

BOOK NOOK: Inaccuracies in ‘Killing Lincoln’ don’t alter story

Happy Birthday, President Lincoln. Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard have a present for you, “Killing Lincoln,” a dead-serious but sometimes fanciful account of your last days, and those of your assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

A humble and introspective man, you may find it a bit fevered for your taste. It has stirred controversy in these times and you sir, in particular, would be distressed at the incivility of the discourse. Things have little improved in the century and a half since even those Americans loyal to the Union were depicting you as a baboon. The nation’s wounds may have been bound up, but they still ooze vitriol.

The principal author, the one whose name is larger than yours on the cover, ranks, for better or worse, as one of the most influential Americans of our time and if you don’t believe that, just ask him.

Success breeds contempt. Many swear that if O’Reilly said it, it must be a lie. You’ve been there and done that and since this book is about you and not him, let’s address the subject at hand first and the external criticisms later.

Even to one familiar with that time period, “Killing Lincoln” moves briskly. The intended audience is not those with lifetime Lincoln avocations, but those only vaguely familiar. O’Reilly and Dugard serve them well, as if it were all happening now. The complex strategy sequences preceding General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox are graphically enhanced.

“Killing Lincoln” tries to dismiss one theory, that Secretary of War Stanton, with whom you frequently disagreed, was behind it all. After recommending a bodyguard for Ford’s Theatre on the fateful night, he then withheld the services of Thomas Eckert, a man of great strength and diligence. Eckert’s replacement, John Parker, was boozing it up in a nearby saloon when Booth broke in unimpeded.

Too often, O’Reilly’s word choices favor the trite over the true. Page four refers to Booth’s “crack team of conspirators.” Hogwash. Collectively they were drunks, losers and egomaniacs. If only al-Qaida had recruited such nincompoops in September 2001.

None of this makes “Killing Lincoln” a bad book, or bad history. High points: The descriptions of the miserable condition of the soldiers, the rebel’s plea that “I’m damned if I ever love another country,” the little-remarked death of 87 men drowned in pursuit of Booth through Maryland swamps, the exquisite depiction of Lee’s surrender.

 “Killing Lincoln” should encourage many to learn more. As you passed, Mr. President, Secretary Stanton exhaled “Now he belongs to the ages.” For all his bluster, Bill O’Reilly helps seal that deal.

Still, “Killing Lincoln” evokes knee-jerk negativity. Near a display in a Walmart on Christmas Eve, a bystander, nicely-dressed, well-spoken, told me “They say it’s all lies and inaccuracies.” I politely pressed him for specifics. He had none, preferring the comfort of unsubstantiated generalities.

Findings:

• Many prominently criticize O’Reilly for saying Lincoln “furled” his brow, rather than “furrowed.”

• The book errs in a dramatic claim that opposing Generals Grant and Lee never met again after Appomattox. Evidently they later consulted to formulate an orderly exchange of prisoners.

• Twice in one chapter, “Killing Lincoln” describes meetings in the Oval Office, not hatched until almost a half-century later.

• The book errs in its description of harsh treatment accorded executed conspirator Mary Surratt in prison.

Accounts from the time period disagree on the Mary Surratt matter. The others seem to be matters of carelessness with no intent of shaping opinion, and while we can’t overlook these nits, Mr. President, they in no way alter your story. Blowhard or not, Bill O’Reilly has rekindled your flame.

Contact Doug Smith by emailing him at pollyndoug@hotmail.com

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