The real reason George Will is fuming at Bill O'Reilly: The Fox Newser told the truth about Ronald Reagan

O'Reilly vs. Will is about much more than a sensationalist book. It goes to the very core of modern conservatism

Published November 13, 2015 10:02PM (EST)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Fox News)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Fox News)

There’s an amusing squabble afoot between blowhard Bill O’Reilly and conservative columnist George Will. The two have taken shots at each other in recent weeks, both in print and on air. The dispute is over O’Reilly’s latest book (if we can call it that), “Killing Reagan.”

On Will’s view, O’Reilly slanders the conservative icon by suggesting he was mentally incompetent for much of his presidency. Indeed, O’Reilly implies that “the trauma of the March 1981 assassination attempt somehow triggered in Reagan a mental decline, perhaps accelerating the Alzheimer’s disease that would not be diagnosed until 13 years later.  “I think we were pretty clear,” O’Reilly says in a recent interview, “that by every account, Reagan had his good days and his bad days. On his bad days, he couldn’t work. On his good days, he was brilliant.”

O’Reilly’s book orbits around a memo authored by an aide of Howard Baker, Reagan’s Chief of Staff. Prompted by concerns about the President’s mental health, the memo states – according to O’Reilly – that “a lot days” Reagan was too disoriented to leave the second floor of the White House, choosing instead to watch “soap operas all day long.” Alarmed, the story goes, Reagan’s senior staffers considered invoking the 25th Amendment, which outlines the procedures for removing a president from office when he or she is no longer capable of doing the job.

Will disputes all of these claims.

In a Washington Post column, he attacked O’Reilly’s methods: “The book’s pretense of scholarship involves 151 footnotes, only one of which is even remotely pertinent to the book’s lurid assertions…At the Reagan Library, where researchers must register, records show that neither O’Reilly nor Dugard [O’Reilly’s co-author], who churn out a book a year, used its resources.” Will also notes that O’Reilly failed to interview Reagan’s closest aides – Ed Meese, George Shultz and James Baker – all of whom “would have shredded the book’s preposterous premise.”

Will has a point. O’Reilly isn’t a historian or a scholar or even a serious author, and so his scribblings are hardly authoritative. But this doesn’t mean the book’s premise is “preposterous,” even if O’Reilly fails to substantiate it. The fact is, there are plenty of reasons to think Reagan was mentally unfit during his presidency. The man said and did curiously stupid things all the time, and apologists continue to dismiss it as part of Reagan’s “everyman” shtick.

If you’re not committed to the mythology of Reagan, however, this isn’t very convincing. Reagan often sounded like a dishonest and disinterested dolt. “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do,” he once asserted. He claimed the Russian language had no word for “freedom” (it’s svoboda, by the way). He spoke openly and enthusiastically about the imminence of “Armageddon” and End Times Prophecy. During a 1983 Congressional Medal ceremony, he told a story about an act of military heroism that, in fact, never happened (It was later found that the story was part of 1944 film, “A Wing and a Prayer.” In 1985, he lauded the apartheid regime of South Africa for ending segregation (It didn’t end officially until 1994). And let’s not forget that his administration used profits from drug trafficking and illegal weapons sales to fund a genocidal and extraconstitutional war in Nicaragua, and Reagan’s excuse was that he was too distracted (or dim) to know about it.

And the list goes on.

The argument about Reagan’s intellectual fitness is only part of this story, however. The most interesting aspect of the O’Reilly-Will quarrel is Will’s assertion that O’Reilly is “doing the work of the Left, which knows in order to discredit conservatism, it must destroy Reagan’s reputation as a president.” I doubt O’Reilly’s intentions are so lofty. As Roger Ailes, CEO of Fox News, once said, O’Reilly is a “book salesman with a TV show.” O’Reilly has always used his platform on Fox to peddle shit books to credulous viewers, and his attention-grabbing thesis is easily understood in that context.

But Will hits on a fundamental truth about Reagan’s reputation. Conservatism, as a governing philosophy, continues to resonate because of Reagan’s perceived success. But the truth is that Reagan was neither conservative (not in the classical sense, at least) nor successful. Although Republicans never acknowledge it, Reagan left the country significantly worse than he found it, and if they want to own Reagan, the man, they have to own his record as well.

Reagan, the father of contemporary conservatism, tripled the federal budget deficit. During his tenure, our national debt shot up to $3 trillion, “roughly three times as much as the first 80 years of the century had done altogether.” Conservatives claim tax cuts grow the private sector and increase revenue, but Reagan tried this in his first year and the opposite occurred, which is why he raised taxes substantially the following year (and 10 other times over the course of his two terms). Unemployment also spiked to 10.8 percent shortly after Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts, which shows, if nothing else, that job growth doesn’t follow axiomatically from tax breaks.

And there’s much more.

Reagan gave amnesty to over 3 million undocumented immigrants, which is anathema to Republican politics today. Reagan funded the Mujahidin fighters in Afghanistan, which later became the Taliban. Reagan vowed to shrink the size of government, but spending skyrocketed during his administrations. He even tried to privatize Social Security, which would have been a disaster for working class Americans, had he succeeded.

All told, Reagan’s policies didn’t shrink the government or increase prosperity for the middle class. On the contrary, they made government more bloated, more defense-oriented, more oligarchic, and less democratic. Conservatives never reckon with these facts because the ahistorical canonization of Reagan prevents them from doing so. Reagan has become nothing more than a juvenile projection, a malleable myth for a movement in denial.

Unfortunately, the cult of personality around Reagan has obscured the reality of his policies. Republicans constantly genuflect at the altar of Reagan, holding him up as an example of bold conservative leadership. But this is a fantasy, made all the more intractable by the Right’s obsession with Reagan’s flowery image.

To the extent that O’Reilly undercuts this image, he helps explode the various myths surrounding Reagan. Reagan was a figurehead, an actor. His charm and his charisma were the sources of his popularity. It’s precisely because of his vacuousness that people in his administration were able to experiment under his watch. They gave us “trickle-down” economics and massive inequalities and a corporatized government that ceased to work for those who most needed it.

No one remembers this, though. Instead, we remember Reagan’s good looks and his gaping smile and his delightful one-liners, many of which were written by other people. If talking about Reagan’s absenteeism means talking about what actually occurred on his watch, so be it.

Smashing the myth of Reagan as an engaged leader, one hopes, becomes an invitation to look closer at his record, at what happened and who was responsible and in whose interests his policies were conceived. It also means a more honest assessment of Reagan’s “conservative” policies.

Were that to happen, Will is right: Reagan’s reputation would be destroyed and modern conservatism, as an extension of Reagan’s philosophy and a model of prosperity, would be thoroughly discredited.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

MORE FROM Sean Illing