In a recent chat with his colleague and debate-moderation conqueror Chris Wallace, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly spoke about his approach to writing his “Killing” series of books. “What [co-author] Martin Dugard and I have crafted is a franchise for people who want to know about history, but they don’t have time to read 900 pages. So we give you 300 action-packed pages,” said O’Reilly of the approach to such titles as “Killing the Rising Sun,” “Killing Reagan,” “Killing Jesus” among others.
Action is indeed packed into a sequence that starts on Page 227 of “Killing Reagan,” the controversial O’Reilly-Dugard collaboration positing that the March 1981 assassination attempt against President Reagan hobbled him for the rest of his life. The passage addresses a photo-op in which Reagan participated on Aug. 1, 1984, at his Rancho del Cielo in California, as part of a meeting with Archbishop Pio Laghi, Apostolic delegate to the United States. The way “Killing Reagan” tells it, Reagan faltered under tough questioning from commonly tough questioner Sam Donaldson, the renowned ABC News correspondent. Here’s the treatment from O’Reilly-Dugard:
The first queries are softballs. Reagan fields them with ease.
Then ABC newsman Sam Donaldson strikes, posing a question about the Russians.
“Is there anything you can do to get them there?” Donaldson asks about a proposed nuclear arms meeting in Vienna, referring to the leaders of the Soviet Union.
“What?” Reagan asks, suddenly befuddled.
Donaldson smells blood.
He has been on the White House beat throughout the Reagan presidency and is no fan of the administration. He was an eyewitness to the assassination attempt, standing just five feet from John Hinckley when he pulled the trigger. Still, Donaldson feels little warmth for the president, and many members of the media share his disdain.
Donaldson doesn’t even bother to speak to Reagan with a tone of civility. He is outwardly antagonistic, often shouting questions. He has publicly insulted Nancy Reagan by comparing her to a venomous snake, calling her a “smiling mamba.”
Sam Donaldson is now in full confrontational mode.
“Is there anything you can do to get them to Vienna?” he bellows again.
The man who has spent his life speaking on cue, the entertainer who likes to tell a good joke, the politician who has dazzled millions with his rhetoric, has no answer.
Ronald Reagan is lost.
As journalists and television cameras record the moment, the president seems incapable of rendering an answer to Sam Donaldson.
Finally, Nancy Reagan leans over and whispers into her husband’s ear: “We’re doing everything we can.”
“We’re doing everything we can,” the president says to Sam Donaldson.
As this blog noted on Saturday, this passage has factual problems. Donaldson, for one, tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “I wasn’t there.” The 82-year-old retired newsman says he was in Santa Barbara with other members of the press, while a small contingent of rotating pool members went to the ranch to photograph and question Reagan. Charles Bierbauer, a former CNN correspondent who covered Reagan, told us that he, in fact, was the one who’d asked these questions.
Nor do we need to rely on the memories of these folks. Look at this passage from a transcript of Donaldson’s Aug. 1, 1984, report on ABC’s “World News Tonight”: “The President, at his mountaintop ranch, was said to be utterly frustrated by Moscow’s maneuvering, which he thought astonishing and incredible. But his only public expression was one suggested to him by Mrs. Reagan.” Bolding inserted to highlight a formulation used by a correspondent to indicate that he didn’t actually witness the events, let alone ask the questions the drove them.
Eager to learn a bit more about this episode, the Erik Wemple Blog requested video of the press availability from the Ronald Reagan Library. It’s embedded at the top of this post. Starting at the 1:38 mark, pool reporters begin quizzing the president about various topics. They don’t get very far. “I’m not going to take any questions at a — at a photo opportunity,” says Reagan at one point.
The entire Q & A took less than a minute. And contrary to the “action-packed” description in “Killing Reagan,” it doesn’t come off very dramatically, either. (Efforts to secure comment from O’Reilly, Dugard and the publisher of “Killing Reagan” have failed). It sounds like a few journalists trying to get a snippet of newsworthy material from the president on a midsummer day. Where O’Reilly sees Donaldson in “full confrontational mode,” the video indicates that Bierbauer — now dean of the College of Information and Communications at the University of South Carolina — was merely asking a reasonable question and then following up very quickly with a clarification. This blog passed along those impressions to Bierbauer, who responded:
I’d agree. We engaged in this kabuki all the time. White House created a photo opportunity. We considered a question opportunity, too, because the pool consisted of reporters as well as cameras. Pool components were pretty well regularized—AP, UPI wire service reporters, a newspaper reporter, a magazine reporter, a broadcast reporter. At that time, there were four networks in the rotation: ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN.
As you can hear, the questions were matter-of-fact. We largely just wanted a sound bite on some subject for the evening news. To some degree, that would justify the networks spending thousands of dollars a day for people to sit in Santa Barbara while the Reagans were at the ranch.
Even if Reagan had said something innocuous or volunteered he was doing everything he could, there might not have been a story. Nancy’s prompting was the story, such as it was.
But O’Reilly is writing fiction.
Nothing to add.