Bill O'Reilly was one of the inventors of cable TV talk shows and probably its most dominant force for more than 20 years. However, probably his most underrated accomplishment is that he has made history compelling and fun. His Killing series and other books have sold well over 17 million books and sparked interest in revisiting historic events and figures that may have grown stale in our memories.
I interviewed him last week about his new book, Killing England: The Brutal Struggle for American Independence. This revisits the Revolutionary War mainly through the day-to-day lives of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. O'Reilly made the point several times that this book was timely because of the current surge to remove Confederate war statues, which has spilled over into calls to remove statues of Washington and Jefferson. The school district in Dallas even considered removing Franklin's name from some school buildings.
In addition to centering on the role of these three Founding Fathers in winning American independence from Great Britain, the book brings home the brutality of the war. There are many battles in which surrendering soldiers are gunned down or bayoneted to death.
The brutality of the war is matched by the desperation felt by Washington and others at various points. Because Valley Forge is so close, most of us know about the time Washington and his men spent there in the winter of 1777-78, and the fortitude of the hungry, often shoeless troops is the stuff of legend. O'Reilly takes us inside other winter encampments that were almost as brutal.
Throughout O'Reilly's account, Washington is the rock who pushes his troops to victory. However, O'Reilly's Washington is a work in progress who makes some mistakes until he hits his stride. He even resorts to hangings and other severe punishments to deal with those who are disloyal or neglectful of their duties.
Killing England follows the pattern of the other books in O'Reilly's series. They are so successful because O'Reilly is a former history teacher who has a good sense of what it takes to reach an audience. He courts controversy. In Killing Reagan, he theorizes that the president was more severely damaged than we knew by John Hinckley's assassination attempt, and that the 1981 attempt on Reagan's life had a deep psychological impact on him that greatly affected his presidency. I think this stance made this book an interesting read, and I think his research was rock-solid.
I have told O'Reilly that I think the most important book in his series is Killing the Rising Sun. This book documents the sheer savagery of Japan's reign of terror over much of Asia over many years. He doesn't pull punches in laying this out in detail, and the book is persuasive in detailing why President Harry Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb to help bring about the end of World War II was correct.
I know there are critics of O'Reilly's books, and that's good. Their criticism opens debate on people such as Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Reagan, Jesus, and Gen. George S. Patton. He wants that, and hopes that we can make history compelling again.
If you've never read an O'Reilly book, I recommend getting your feet wet by reading Killing Kennedy. I think almost everyone knows the basic facts and all the conspiracy theories connected with the assassination. However, this book reads like a thriller and gives great insight into President Kennedy, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
O'Reilly has been quoted by CNN.com as saying, "I always felt that history is fascinating, but the books are boring, and if you can write exciting books, you would sell a lot of copies and have movies made of them. And it's all come true."