Early historians of America, rich in imagination and sometimes short on evidence, took as their purpose the crafting of heroic tales that carried strong moral lessons. Thus did Parson Weems’s early biography of George Washington (published in 1800) tell, as histo­rian Richard Hofstadter pointed out, “historical lies in order to impress upon the young the importance of telling the truth.”

Historical writing about American presidents has come a long way from the didactic tales crafted by romantic histo­rians in the 19th century. But their aspirations live on in two new books about Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, presidents who loom large in the American imagination, especially in this year of anniversaries: 2011 marks the Civil War’s sesquicentennial and a half-century since the inauguration of Kennedy.

Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s “Killing Lincoln” offers, its authors promise, “a saga of courage, cowardice and betrayal” with “lessons . . . relevant to all our lives.” Those lessons are not entirely clear after reading “Killing Lincoln,” but O’Reilly and Dugard suggest that they involve awareness “of the true heroes who have made the country great as well as the villains who have besmirched it.”

Chris Matthews’s affectionate portrait of Kennedy, “Jack Kennedy,” likewise reflects a preoccupation with the legendary. In exploring Kennedy’s path from boyhood to the presidency, Matthews asks, “What prepared him to be the hero we needed?”

It is richly ironic that O’Reilly and Matthews, renowned as hard-nosed, unsparingly direct political commentators in the heated arena of cable television news, embrace in their books heroic presidents. The modern political culture they inhabit has rendered that archetype largely extinct. Lincoln was, as O’Reilly and Dugard would have it, “the most hated man in America” in the weeks before his assassination when he struggled to hold together a riven nation amid the brutality of the Civil War. Yet he earns the authors’ praise for his Christlike ability to rise above the fray and endure public scorn in the interests of high principle, compassion and reconciliation. Lincoln’s capacity to look beyond political division, toward compromise and understanding, deeply impresses O’Reilly and Dugard. Describing the president’s appearance on the night of April 10, 1865, before a frenzied crowd elated by news of Robert E. Lee’s surrender, they observe: “There is no malice in his tone, no undercurrent of sarcasm born of the many years of public ridicule.”

Matthews finds in Kennedy an extraordinary capacity to see all sides of an issue with coolness and “uncanny detachment.” Kennedy’s independence emerged early in a life marked by personal loss and physical suffering. Family wealth and privilege permitted him to rise without acquiring the usual debts (literally and figuratively) that constrained other politicians. But his Irish Catholic roots sensitized Kennedy to the “sting of prejudice.”

Matthews quotes with approval Sen. Harris Wofford’s description of JFK as “a complex political leader in a complex situation. He was not anyone’s man. . . . He had one foot in the Cold War and one foot in a new world he saw coming.” However, Kennedy never would have had the opportunity to demonstrate such presidential timber, Matthews asserts, if voters in 1960 had had access to the sort of information in his medical record we take as a right today.

Relentless television exposure and analysis, a far more skeptical and independent press corps shaped by the Vietnam War and Watergate, and the cynicism that dominates our political landscape perhaps leaves history as the last preserve where presidential heroes may roam. Yet even within the past’s domain, the three authors’ idealizations are hard to reconcile with critical historical facts. Matthews depicts Kennedy as a president who saved the world from nuclear destruction through his adroit handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis and his pursuit of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Kennedy’s expansion of nuclear weapons early in his presidency receives little attention. Matthews credits Kennedy with taking a “strong stand on civil rights” but skips over the slow evolution of this position during his presidency, as casualties mounted during a critical and violent phase in the civil rights movement. In fact, many who had hoped for Kennedy’s leadership in civil rights felt betrayed by his recalcitrance.

Although Matthews devotes just three of his 16 chapters to Kennedy’s presidency and reflects only briefly on his legacy, he deploys an extensive cache of memoirs and reminiscences by Kennedy intimates, as well as scholarly studies, archival sources and his own interviews to “explain the greatness and enigma of Jack Kennedy.” Working skillfully with these accounts, he conveys in telling detail Kennedy’s humor, intelligence and zest for politics, as well as his impatience and boredom with what he considered mundane.

The stories are familiar, but Matthews excels in capturing the tribalism of the Irish Catholic culture and experience Kennedy both absorbed and overcame as he made his way. “There was a lightness to him,” Matthews explains, “a wry Irishness that blended with the WASP manner rather than aspiring to it,” that, in the end, permitted him to “enter where his father, mother, and brother could not.”

Matthews is at his best in describing the political dynamics, strategizing and realpolitik that permitted Kennedy to succeed first in Massachusetts politics, then on the national stage and, finally, in capturing the presidency despite the liabilities of religion and youth. The book conveys a mood of longing not only for Kennedy, but for the World War II generation.

O’Reilly and Dugard’s admiration for Lincoln’s heroic stature appears to derive, in part, from the president’s conciliatory approach to Reconstruction. Lincoln’s support for “a certain pragmatic lenience toward the southern states,” the authors maintain, was already in the air when Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. “The gist is simple: Put down your guns and go home. Let’s rebuild the nation together. This was President Lincoln’s vision, to which Grant subscribed,” O’Reilly and Dugard write. On the other hand, they depict Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, as a man who favored “draconian punishment” and whose “vengeful policies toward the South were in direct contrast with what Lincoln hoped for.”

That final point is inarguable, but not for the reasons advanced in “Killing Lincoln.” The plans for Reconstruction that Johnson unveiled in May 1865 provided amnesty and a restoration of property to most white Southerners. They also made possible, as historian Eric Foner has explained, “new governments in the South in which blacks had no voice what­so­ever.” Neither Lincoln’s nor Johnson’s vision of Reconstruction addressed the terrible costs exacted by slavery and the Civil War on the South, or the nation, as became clear over the ensuing decades.

“Killing Lincoln” also resurrects an old canard debunked long ago by serious historians: that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was involved in the plot to kill Lincoln, in the hope that he might ascend to the presidency. There is no credible evidence to support such an assertion, nor do O’Reilly and Dugard provide any. (In fact, “Killing Lincoln” offers no direct citations for any of its assertions. In a three-page summary under the heading “Notes,” the authors assure readers that they have consulted “hundreds” of sources; they list the secondary sources they have relied on.)

The authors acknowledge that although “clues . . . point to Stanton’s involvement . . . no concrete connection has ever been proven.” In the next sentence, however, they conclude “circumstantially, he was involved” — a rhetorical conceit that enables the authors to have it both ways. In fact, they repeatedly raise the discredited theory, hinting broadly that Stanton might have betrayed his president, hastening a downward spiral of events that changed the nation “forever.” The purported consequences of Lincoln’s death are never really elaborated upon.

O’Reilly and Dugard recount the days leading up to Lincoln’s assassination, the murder and its aftermath with a narrative flair worthy of their dramatic story. Despite melodramatic chapter endings — “President Lincoln has just twelve days to live”; “the Lincolns have plans to attend the theater” — the death of Lincoln is an inherently compelling chapter in the nation’s history.

Neither “Killing Lincoln” nor “Jack Kennedy” can be read without pondering the nagging question that transcends the myths: namely, what if? But both books remind us that presidents gain heroic stature with hindsight — at least in these cases. The greatest among them never saw themselves as heroes while they shouldered the burdens imposed by their historic moment. And neither did the nation’s citizens.

Fitzpatrick is a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire. Her most recent book is “Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation.”


Elusive Hero

By Chris Matthews

Simon & Schuster. 479 pp. $27.50


The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever

By Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

Holt. 324 pp. $28