Killing Lincoln: Still a best seller, now a National Geographic docudrama

Billy Campbell portrays Abraham Lincoln in the television film ‘Killing Lincoln’ based on the best-selling book by Bill O’Reilly. Actor Billy Campbell makes a convincing Lincoln in “Killing Lincoln,” showing now on the National Geographic Channel. Read more:

Killing Lincoln, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard is currently Number 7 on the New York Times bestseller’s list for non-fiction books. It has been on the list for 72 weeks. For reference sake, and based on quasi-reliable blog sites, compare this with The DaVinci Code  on the Fiction list–166 weeks–and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in Non-Fiction–216 weeks. It has a ways to go to beat Midnight’s record, but it is still a publishing phenomenon in spite of–or, who knows?, perhaps because of–the controversy that it stirred up after it appeared.

On Sunday, February 17, the National Geographic docudrama based on the book debuted, narrated / hosted by Tom Hanks. The story was tightly compacted into the two-hour time slot, which means that a lot of interesting stuff was left out. For example, the bit about John Wilkes Booth and Lincoln’s son, Robert,  sharing the same girl—Lucy Hale! Okay, tangential—but salacious! And who doesn’t like their history salacious? But the important elements were all there, and the acting by Billy Campbell–who had to have some real nerve to do Lincoln following so closely upon Daniel-Day Lewis’ soon to be Oscar-winning (yes, you heard it here!) performance, but Campbell makes a quietly compelling Lincoln. Jesse Johnson (son of Miami Vice co-star Don Johnson) was dark, compelling, intelligent, and driven as John Wilkes Booth. The two performances carried the two-hour presentation through the continual narrations by Hanks, a format that could have spelled disaster with lesser talents in the main roles.

Johnson as Booth–Dark and compelling. Source: National Geographic

O’Reilly co-authored his book with Martin Dugard, a New York Times bestselling author of To Be A Runner (Rodale Books, 2011) which talks about his passion for, well, running I guess. Neither O’Reilly nor Dugard are historians (or, apparently, grammarians—some pedant pointed out that Lincoln was said to ‘furl’ his brow and that he should have ‘furrowed’ it). And in the first edition, they had Lincoln sitting in the oval office. There wasn’t one until 1909. Yes, mistakes were made.

When I first reviewed Killing Lincoln over a year ago, I wrote O’Reilly about one of the errors in his book. Of course, it was tangential to the story. The nuns in high school were always complaining that stuff I brought up in class was beside the point! Anyway, in the last chapter where they are talking about the aftermath of the assassination, I read that General Custer’s body was the only one not mutilated after the battle of the Little Big Horn. If you’re interested—and who wouldn’t be for heaven’s sake?—the only body not mutilated was that of Captain Myles Keogh, whose horse Comanche was touted as the only survivor of the battle. (He wasn’t, though. Most of the Sioux and Cheyenne—remember? They survived!).

Bill and Marty wrote back and thanked me for pointing out this egregious error.

Hah! Okay, that was a blatant lie. My e-mail went to cyber no-man’s land. I fully expect to read about Custer’s pristine corpse even in the “corrected” version!

So, Killing Lincoln has—or had—factual errors not worthy of Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is Wikipedia to her Britannica. Agreed.

But it is still a damn good read. I know that as an academic I am supposed to be upset by shoddy scholarship; but as a writer I also appreciate a story that moves, entertains, and educates (however imperfectly) in the process. Killing Lincoln does that, in Grisham style. Not everyone can suffer the lengthy and well-documented style of Doris Kearns Goodwin (although Goodwin’s Team of Rivals is one of the finest books about Lincoln I have ever read). But anyone reading Killing Lincoln will find that they have a new appreciation for the reality of what happened in this country on April 14, 1865—even though Lincoln never sat once in the oval office.

Perhaps one of the best things, and most useful as well as educational, to come as a result of the collaboration with National Geographic is a great website that takes you in a very interesting manner through the conspiracy. This will make a great addition to many school curricula, and since O’Reilly was as educator that’s as it should be.

Copyright Isaac Morris 2013