Brian Kilmeade is leaving his so-called “friends” behind in his new side gig.
The “Fox & Friends” co-host has written, with the help of writer Don Yaeger, “George Washington’s Secret Six,” a novelistic work of history about spying during the American Revolution. Though Kilmeade is better known for his persona as a cheery conservative with whom many Americans start their days, he claims to have convened a meeting of various historians at a Holiday Inn in order to triangulate their stories.
Salon spoke to Kilmeade about the book — he believes that spying, then as now, is a fundamental part of the American experiment and said that the wiretappjng undertaken by the NSA “is a need that we have to stay above the rest to maintain our sovereignty.” As for why the American right is so obsessed with the lives and ideas of the Founding Fathers, Kilmeade had some words that might be inspiring for a Republican Party torn apart: “You had Jefferson and Adams fighting each other, and they didn’t speak for years, two intelligent men, indispensable people. So I just think that people should understand that when people fight today – they could both be right to a degree.”
Growing up in Long Island, I thought I knew it all. You go on all these field trips and you think you know where this is and that is, this historic place … I think it was probably around ’89, I saw someone painting one of these lines in the road. And I said, no offense, I’ve never seen somebody doing that with their hands, it’s just going to wash away! But the line was to commemorate George Washington when he came to … back to Long Island, to thank everyone when he became president. One thing led to another and so I went to the library and I got a book and I was fascinated by it. [Years later] finally, I just said, that’s going to be my next project. I wanted to look at it and then Don Yaeger said to me, “Hey, Brian, I want to do a project with you,” and I said, “I don’t want to do sports, Don, this is what I want to do, I’m sure you’re not interested,” and he was very interested, and our first stop was the CIA.
Now I just wanted to pull out a story that matters so much, that revolves around so many famous people that I think has not been told in wide circles. I can’t do Lincoln’s assassination, I don’t think I’m the best person to do the Kennedy assassination, but what if I told you about spies that wanted no credit, that accomplished so much, lived and died with almost no one knowing what they did.
You’re writing for a mass audience, and you’re not an academic historian by trade. What’s the difference between your approach and an expert’s?
What I did is – I got all these people who were kind enough to impart wisdom to me … I was talking to them. I was talking to them not as an expert but as an American. And what I did is, I would not make any decisions. They were the experts, they live it every day, they don’t make a ton of money, they just want people to learn what they have to say with passion.
So I said to myself, what if I got everybody to say — the people who believed the guy who rode across the Sound was the most important, or believed that the bartender who picked up supplies in Massachusetts was the most important, what if I got the first guy, the Woodhull family, who are still around, in Oyster Bay, and what if I got them all together, and we fleshed it out together, because a lot of these stories contradict.
And I got them together thanks to the people at Holiday Inn in Suffolk County and we had this three-hour conference, and I had my 20 questions, in more or less – where did Washington go when he thanked them? Did Washington meet Robert Townsend or not? I didn’t pretend that I had the answers, I researched anyway. And I listened to what they said and I pushed them on their background, what was folklore and what wasn’t, and I thought, I really have some new stuff here. And I thought if I could write the conversation away – with Don, and Don has a few people that helped him out – and I could write the conversation that same way as I talked – I don’t want to come off as the smartest guy in the room. I want the everyday person who cares about the country and doesn’t necessarily live for the next historical crime to like the book. And when I started giving samples back to Penguin, and I showed them what I had, they were very happy. And I had my fingers crossed and I thought, so will everybody.
PRISM and the CIA’s actions have been in the news. Do you think this book is relevant considering how much people are worried about being spied on?
I think what I try to do with the book is show people they were not only sophisticated, but their aim was pure. Their aim was to form a country and get some freedom. So the way they did it was pretending to be someone else, having encrypted messages, working in the middle of the British.
Was it worth it to spy if your objective is correct? I think not only is spying necessary but we wouldn’t have a country if we hadn’t used it. And why would we stop using it? It is a need that we have to stay above the rest to maintain our sovereignty. And when we see this debate about spies, what we should do is – and how we should act, and that’s not how the founders would have it – really? They would do anything to preserve or form the country. We should do anything within our realm and within our ethics to keep that country safe.
The GOP is especially concerned with and intrigued by the Founding Fathers; who do you think is most like the Founding Fathers today, and why do you think the interest is still alive?
I don’t know, it’s like saying, with the analogy of sports, who’s out there who’s as good as Michael Jordan and why would they be better? I would say, I don’t necessarily think anyone belongs in their category; I think there is something extraordinary about these 20- to 30-year-olds who would try to outwit and outfight this army, and they had to cripple them, and they had to outthink them. And they had to come up with a foundation to do that and motivate the masses, who in many cases just wanted to farm. I don’t think you could possibly go back to our roots in that respect. But I also think that one thing is clear: They didn’t agree on anything. They fought it out everywhere. And you had Jefferson and Adams fighting each other, and they didn’t speak for years, two intelligent men, indispensable people. So I just think that people should understand that when people fight today – they could both be right to a degree.
Because back then when the country was being born, we all believed different things and the only thing they did agree on purely, was that there was a need for this country and they all would do what was in its best interest. But I don’t think it would be right to say, well, that reminds me of X politician or that reminds me of a Democrat, and I don’t think that was the point of the book. I wanted to give people an idea of the fiber of the people that you don’t read about in the newspapers. And when I tell you about the Secret Six, I just wanted to say this: They were on the outside, they were normal, what they did in the war was extraordinary, and I believe we’re all capable of that. And as I meet these Navy SEALs and these captains and lieutenants and sergeants that come through Fox, they never want credit! They never want to take any bows — and they’re uncomfortable when you give it to them. I do a lot of stuff with Wounded Warriors and the Armed Forces Foundation; if you want to get these guys to stop talking, start complimenting! That’s what I got out of this book. As soon as Washington comes by to thank them, there’s only two guys who showed up. Washington wanted to thank them — he lauded them in his letters — but they did not show up to say “you’re welcome.” Because I think it would’ve diminished it if they did; they did it for the cause and not for the fame or the riches — in fact, nobody took any money to deal with it, they just wanted their expenses covered.
Right. It strikes me, though, that it’s a little bit different from the contemporary military in the sense that these folks weren’t defending a state that existed, they were creating a new state.
Those people had to go to guerrilla tactics, whereas we had a force. So we were the ones that had to think and had to be motivated and had to wear out our opponent, as opposed to many other cases, just the opposite.
It’s hard to compare the contemporary military to the Secret Six because, as you say, the military today is so much more powerful than the revolutionaries were then. So I’m just wondering if you feel there are any people in politics today like them, fighting for what they believe in against such long odds.
I can’t get inside the head of a politician today. But if you see someone do it and they’re making the salary that they’re making, they don’t do it to get rich, even though some of them walk out rich and I don’t know why — I gotta get inside Washington and figure that out. A lot of them are motivated because they believe in the country and the cause, and if you listen to most of their speeches, it’s a lot of what people like to hear, because people believe in the country and a lot of it is catchphrases. But I think when you see these men and women fight and not give up on their issues, and you want them to compromise, they believe what they believe. I think it goes back — I think you can go through that.
I think the equation, or what reminds me most of the Secret Six, would be the Navy SEALs, the Green Berets and the special forces — because they work in different costumes, they have to go undercover, they have to be unbelievably resourceful and resilient, they have to have normal lives, and they have to go home and not tell people what they did and what they’ve done. And that’s what reminds me more than politicians, because I’m picking up these guys in the middle of a war — and they’re learning death drops and traveling around with different papers, and you open up with Nathan Hale and they know if they’re caught, they’re hanged. What would motivate people to give their lives for a cause that looks so hopeless, especially after the battle of Brooklyn, where Washington barely escaped? It’s because they believed in country and possibility, and they wanted this different life. And I see that when you talk to these Navy SEALs — the sacrifices they make in their own marriages, their own families, and their own physical welfare — that’s what it reminds me of. Except for a lot of these guys aren’t the amazing athletes, they don’t go through the amazing training; they are the ones that are in the middle of the war.
Are you worried that you won’t be able to get folks who identify as liberal to share the message and read your book?
I hope not. I think that if you — I mean, I can’t imagine someone not caring about a story that involves George Washington, Nathan Hale, you know, all these guys, Nathan Hale, Benedict Arnold — he’s part of American folklore as well. They’re everyday people that you can relate to that do extraordinary things. I think that liberals and conservatives do extraordinary things on a daily basis. So you don’t have the same political thought, but I think we can all agree that we’re pretty much in awe of how we’ve been formed and how we survived. I think these stories make the so-called average person understand that they’re capable of extraordinary things — and that’s what I think we’ve witnessed in this three- to four-year period. This helplessness, I think, is something that liberals and conservatives can walk away and say, “That reminds me of me,” and they’re probably both right.
Your colleague Bill O’Reilly has written several books about the killing of historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, and I’m wondering if you — for people who have read those books — if you could compare or evaluate how your book differs or how your method differs.
I’ll tell you what: We’ll see if I’m even in the same breath as those books. You know what? I have high school kids come up to me and tell me they never knew about this; I read those books cover to cover and I didn’t know a lot about it, or the way it was related, the way he wrote it. And that’s what gave me the belief that the story I’ve had since 1989 could go to a wider audience and that there might be a thirst for it — no doubt about it. I studied this before I met Bill O’Reilly, when he was on a different channel before there was a Fox News, but there’s no doubt about it that when I gave it to Bill O’Reilly to look at and he read it and really liked it, I told him, “If it wasn’t for your books, I wouldn’t think there’d be an appetite amongst the American people, outside the historical circles, that would like this.” But then I see people embrace the killing of Kennedy and Lincoln more than is common for kids; then when I go to the Spy Museum, when I hear people talking about it, I said, “I gotta get this out.” And if I do a good job and did these people justice, I think people will be interested.