O’Reilly, Will In Vitriolic Dispute Over Reagan
NEW YORK (AP) — Bill O’Reilly and George Will have escalated their extraordinary feud this week, a dispute that encompasses the leading cable television news outlet, a publishing empire and the legacy of the conservative movement’s most revered politician.
Will’s most recent column in The Washington Post, headlined “Bill O’Reilly makes a mess of history,” followed up their onscreen confrontation last Friday on O’Reilly’s Fox News Channel show. O’Reilly responded by saying Will is jealous of his success.
“You know what, George?” O’Reilly said Tuesday night. “I’m bored with it. I’m bored with it!”
There has been no immediate comment from Fox News Channel executives either taking sides in the dispute or whether there would be any disciplinary action against Will, a network commentator, going on O’Reilly’s show and essentially calling its host a liar.
The argument is centered on the book, “Killing Reagan,” by O’Reilly and co-author Martin Dugard, about the aftermath of the 1981 assassination attempt on former President Ronald Reagan. It’s one of a series of books, including “Killing Kennedy” and “Killing Lincoln,” that have made O’Reilly the country’s best-selling historian by far. The books usually sell 1 million copies or more in hardcover, a rare achievement these days for nonfiction.
Will has joined with several former Reagan administration officials in objecting to the book’s characterization of the former president as occasionally mentally incapable to serve, a decline accelerated by the assassination attempt. Reagan, who served as president from 1981-89, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994 and died at age 93 in 2004.
“Killing Reagan” relies in part on a memo written in 1987 by former White House aide James M. Cannon to White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker, based on interviews with other White House personnel. The memo quotes concerns expressed about the president’s mental capacity and suggests the possibility that relieving the president of his duties might be in order.
But former Reagan aides, including Edwin Meese, have said that Cannon later recanted those concerns when he and Baker became convinced Reagan was fully capable of handling the job. Baker and Cannon are now dead.
Meese, a former attorney general, and John Heubusch, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, wrote in a column for Real Clear Politics last month that O’Reilly’s book “does a real disservice to our 40th president and to history itself.”
That cause was taken up by Will, who wrote that O’Reilly had slandered Reagan, and led to the on-air tussle last Friday.
Will said O’Reilly was “something of an expert” on misleading people, and suggested that the book plays into liberal attempts to discredit Reagan. He said he was surprised O’Reilly relied so heavily on a memo and neglected to interview surviving Reagan aides who would have disputed its contents. One would be Wills’ wife, who worked on the communications staff in the Reagan White House.
“His is an interesting approach to history: Never talk to anyone with firsthand knowledge of your subject,” Will wrote in this week’s column.
O’Reilly contends that his book is entirely accurate. He said he was reluctant to speak to people with “skin in the game” – former Reagan compatriots who have a vested interest in seeing the former president lionized. Despite the dispute, O’Reilly said his book is generally laudatory of Reagan.
“It is preposterous to assert that there wasn’t an intense concern about the president’s mental state shortly after the Iran Contra scandal broke,” O’Reilly and Dugard wrote in a column posted on O’Reilly’s website on Wednesday. “That is a fact, and it is disturbing that Reagan loyalists have attacked us for pointing it out.”
O’Reilly, no stranger to televised confrontations, called Will a hack and said that his “elitist tone” has never been welcome on the anchor’s top-rated prime-time show.
“You, George, are jealous,” O’Reilly said on his show this week, after mentioning that he’d gotten some 10,000 emails about the dispute. “You’re jealous of our success on television and in publishing. Your last book was a huge bomb, a catastrophe.”
Will did not immediately return a call for comment. The first line of the column Will issued on Tuesday makes no secret of his feelings, though.
“Were the lungs the seat of wisdom, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly would be wise,” he wrote. “But they are not and he is not.”
AP writer Hillel Italie contributed to this report.