"Killing Kennedy": Bill O'Reilly wimps out

Believe it or not: Bill O'Reilly once showed guts reporting on JFK. His new insta-history shows a bulldog gone weak

By David Talbot
Published October 8, 2012 2:48PM (EDT)
Commentator Bill O'Reilly checks himself out before an interview at the Republican National Convention.      (Reuters/Lisa Miller)
Commentator Bill O'Reilly checks himself out before an interview at the Republican National Convention. (Reuters/Lisa Miller)

Once upon a time, Bill O’Reilly had balls when it came to investigating the Kennedy assassination. Back in 1991 -- as a reporter for the tabloid TV news show, “Inside Edition” – O’Reilly had the guts to track the epic crime all the way into the dark labyrinth of the CIA. Following up on the important work done by investigators for the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late ‘70s, O’Reilly boldly told his “Inside Edition” audience that there were “crucial” links between alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and the CIA. O’Reilly also reported that the CIA had infiltrated the office of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who brought the only criminal case in the JFK assassination to trial, in an effort to sabotage Garrison’s investigation.

That was then – when O’Reilly was a scrappy reporter for low-budget syndicated TV. But now, of course, he’s BILL O’REILLY – Fox News icon, a lavishly paid centerpiece of the Murdoch empire. Everything he says   -- every windy pontification and dyspeptic remark – is writ LARGE. He can no longer afford to have the courage of his suspicions. In O’Reilly’s new ideological mold, the CIA is not the incubator of an unspeakable crime against American democracy – it’s the defender of the greatest nation in the world.

And so we have the Fox News star’s latest instant bestseller, “Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot," co-written by Martin Dugard, who collaborated with O’Reilly on his earlier runaway success, “Killing Lincoln.” There is almost nothing in this Kennedy for Beginners book that indicates O’Reilly once did some original research on this murky and still deeply haunting subject. Most of this surprisingly dumbed-down book is a biographical rehash of the Kennedy story that will contain nothing new for even casual readers of People magazine and viewers of Kennedy soap opera biopics over the years. Once again, we get the story of JFK’s PT-109 heroics in the South Pacific; the lurid tales of Jack’s womanizing and Jackie’s anguish; the requisite cameos of Sinatra, Marilyn and the Mob; the familiar snapshots of a deeply disgruntled Lyndon Johnson, continually humiliated by the Kennedy brothers and their elite Harvard crowd. None of this is worth the book’s $28 price of admission.

When it comes to the assassination of President Kennedy, these days Bill O’Reilly embraces the lone nut theory, pinning sole blame on Lee Harvey Oswald. But his case against Oswald is feeble, and he’s obviously still haunted by the suspicions of the younger, freer Bill O’Reilly. In “Killing Kennedy,” he can’t help returning to those earlier suspicions, in fleeting moments of the book, as if darting a tongue at a nagging tooth.

O’Reilly floats the name Allen Dulles, the CIA spymaster who became deeply embittered toward Kennedy when the president fired him in the wake of the spy agency’s disastrous 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. He also throws out the name Curtis LeMay, the Strangelovian Air Force chief who was willing to risk doomsday by launching preemptive nuclear attacks on Cuba and the Soviet Union – and who considered JFK weak for putting the brakes on the military. And he considers the Mafia, whose godfathers expected lenient treatment from the Kennedy administration, after their cozy relationship with family patriarch Joe Kennedy, but instead came under relentless pressure from the morally fervent young attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy.

But, in the end, O’Reilly returns to the safe path, following the hapless young ex-Marine Lee Harvey Oswald on his trail toward infamy. O’Reilly cuts back and forth between the JFK story line and Oswald’s. If his portrayal of Kennedy is at least reassuringly conventional, his portrait of the accused assassin is hopelessly muddled and confusing. O’Reilly tries to make a case for Oswald as a “crack shot,” a man supposedly capable of pulling off the magical act of marksmanship in Dealey Plaza. But then he acknowledges that Oswald couldn’t even hit an easy sitting target, when he allegedly took an errant shot at former Army general Edwin Walker, while the reactionary military man was huddled over his taxes in his Dallas home.

O’Reilly seems intent on building a profile of Oswald as a bitter loser who resented JFK for everything from his sex appeal to his war on Castro’s Cuba. But, in the end, O’Reilly – who employs a weird use of the present tense that is more corny than dramatic -- concedes that “Oswald does not hate the president … in fact, Oswald would very much like to emulate JFK.” O’Reilly observes that Oswald was so smitten by Kennedy that he checked out JFK biographies and the president’s bestseller, “Profiles in Courage,” from the New Orleans Public Library.

Predictably, O’Reilly then makes a stab at tying Oswald into a vague communist plot. “Castro definitely wants [Kennedy] dead,” he flatly asserts, without offering a shred of evidence. In fact, in the months before the president’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy was sending out peace feelers to the Cuban leader, to the great alarm of Washington national security hard-liners when they found out. As news of JFK’s violent death reached Havana, a deeply unnerved Castro blurted out, “Everything is changed,” according to a French journalist who was interviewing him at the time. Castro predicted that the post-Kennedy U.S. government would make life much tougher for him.

In the end, O’Reilly is at a loss to explain Lee Harvey Oswald. The Fox News anchor is clearly unsettled by the fact that Oswald never proudly took credit for the assassination, as do most slayers of kings and presidents, including John Wilkes Booth (“Sic semper tyrannis!”), the villain of his last book. In contrast, Oswald proclaimed his innocence to the end, shouting out to reporters in the Dallas police station, “I’m just a patsy!” O’Reilly finds the remark “tantalizing,” but does nothing to follow it up.

O’Reilly continues to be intrigued by a key player in the Oswald story, an elegant, White Russian, globetrotting oilman named George de Mohrenschildt.  In his new book, O’Reilly writes that de Mohrenschildt “may have CIA connections.” But back in his “Inside Edition” days, the TV newsman was more definitive, calling him “a crucial link between the CIA and Lee Harvey Oswald.” In fact, de Mohrenschildt was a CIA contract agent with long family ties to Allen Dulles – the man who perhaps looms largest in the Kennedy assassination drama. Even after he was fired by JFK as CIA director in 1961, Dulles continued to play a subterranean role in U.S. intelligence that was unknown by Kennedy. And following the assassination, Dulles took the dominating role in the Warren Commission investigation, carefully guiding the panel away from CIA-related areas he found too sensitive.

Many Kennedy assassination researchers have concluded that de Mohrenschildt acted as Oswald’s CIA “baby sitter,” when the young man returned to Texas from the Soviet Union, after a “defection” that observers in the U.S. embassy in Moscow found oddly “staged.” Later, de Mohrenschildt introduced Oswald and his Russian wife, Marina, to another young Dallas couple, Michael and Ruth Paine, whose family also had deep personal and business connections to Dulles. It was Ruth Paine who would find Oswald his job in the Texas Book Depository a month before the gunfire erupted in Dealey Plaza.

O’Reilly waits until the end of the book to break his only bit of news. In the afterword, he reveals that in March 1977, as a young TV reporter, he tracked de Mohrenschildt to a home in swanky Palm Beach, Fla., and was knocking on the door to interview him when a shotgun blast exploded inside. Authorities later declared that the mysterious de Mohrennschildt, who had been subpoenaed to testify by the House Assassinations Committee and was a figure of growing interest in the JFK case, had taken his own life. But some assassination researchers who looked into de Mohrenschildt’s death, like attorney Mark Lane, insisted that the former CIA asset had been silenced because he knew too much. Again, Bill O’Reilly – the tough guy who prides himself on his bulldog news instincts – leaves this story dangling. He has nothing new to add to this perplexing Kennedy footnote.

In a reader’s note that prefaces “Killing Kennedy,” O’Reilly comments that the tragedy of John F. Kennedy is “somewhat personal for me … my Irish-Catholic family had deep emotional ties to the young president and his family.” But there is nothing to indicate the tribal toughness of the Irish in this weak and limp effort. O’Reilly’s book simply exploits the public’s powerful curiosity about the assassination without offering any fresh insights into the monumental crime. With friends of the Kennedy family like Bill O’Reilly, who needs enemies?

David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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Bill O'reilly Bill O'reilly Killing Kennedy Books Fox News John F. Kennedy