Cleaning Up Bill O’Reilly’s Mess

Cleaning Up Bill O’Reilly’s Mess

George Will was right. Bill O’Reilly has “made a mess of history” in reporting that Ronald Reagan suffered mental problems while in office.

The “centerpiece” of Bill O’Reilly’s new book, “Killing Reagan,” was a memo he did not see while writing his book and still to this day has not seen. After being exposed as having never seen a memo he previously claimed he was “vetting” after previously claiming it was the centerpiece, O’Reilly now claims the Reagan Library is hiding it even though they never had it.

In other words, the Reagan Library is hiding a memo they have never had and that O’Reilly has never seen. Get it? Some scholarship. Oliver Stone, call your office.

When I write books, I don’t claim documents which I have never seen to be the “centerpiece” to my works. To avoid one of O’Reilly convenient straw men, no one is denying the memo was written or existed. We are simply denying O’Reilly ever saw it, much less ever “vetted” it.

This would be why George Will took exception to O’Reilly’s characterization recently: “Will has joined with several former Reagan administration officials in objecting to the book’s characterization of the former president as occasionally mentally incapable to serve, a decline accelerated by the assassination attempt.”

The Mice Retaliate

That characterization is based on a certain memo written by James Cannon, now deceased, who never did go into the Reagan White House as a full-time staffer. But Tommy Griscom and A.B. Culvahouse were going in with Sen. Howard Baker to clean up the mess created by fired Chief of Staff Don Regan and his sycophantic aides, known derisively as “The Mice.” This was early 1987.

Cannon had written a memo dismissive of Ronald Reagan’s mental sharpness without having once sat down with the object of his thoughts.

Don Regan was disgraced and the Mice embittered at President Reagan, ready to get revenge. The title of Don Regan’s get-even autobiography, “And The Horse You Rode In On,” spoke volumes as to Regan’s outlook and attitude.

When Baker and company were in the White House, Baker asked each to keep his eyes and ears open and to let him know what was working, what wasn’t, in Reagan’s White House. Cannon took the directive off in a different direction, writing a memorandum questioning Reagan’s mental acuity. He printed three copies, one for each of Baker’s men and Baker himself.

Baker read and dismissively replied, “This is not the Ronald Reagan I just saw.” Culvahouse was also disdainful, and the two handed back the memos to Cannon. Cannon had written a memo dismissive of Reagan’s mental sharpness without having once sat down with the object of his thoughts, even though Reagan was just down the hall.

Instead, he called in “The Mice” one by one, and they spun Cannon badly, falsely claiming Reagan was watching soap operas all day, that he was unengaged, and that Nancy Reagan was running the White House and the world. The New York Times reported of The Mice at the time “they were perceived as yes-men with no strong ideological convictions.” (They are still in Washington.)

Don Regan was known to demand a new joke every day from The Mice so he could, in turn, greet Reagan with a joke each morning, as if that was somehow important to Reagan. Don Regan was also rude, brusque, arrogant, and known to insist he be announced publicly, along with President Reagan, when entering a room. The Mice simply and blithely followed orders.

Besides, James Cannon Recanted

More importantly Cannon, shortly after meeting Reagan personally, recanted his own memo, saying “the old fellow looks fine.” In his book, O’Reilly did not mention this vitally important passage. Never let the facts get in the way of a good yarn.

Reagan’s official biographer, Edmund Morris, never saw any signs of Alzheimer’s and he had close, unfettered access to the Gipper for years.

Obviously, Cannon leaked his memo to journalist Jane Mayer for her 1988 book, “Landslide,” but shortly thereafter disavowed it, again in her book, saying Reagan was fine. He then knew he’d been hoaxed by the bitter Mice. He did not recant his memo under pressure, as O’Reilly has claimed.

Also, the memo in question was written before Cannon was a White House employee, thus his papers would not have been treated as presidential documents, thus never deposited in the National Archives at the Reagan Library and Foundation. So O’Reilly and his co-author, Martin Dugard, never saw the memo because it was never in the National Archives, even as they claimed it was the “centerpiece” to their book, “Killing Reagan.” Since Culvahouse and Baker gave theirs back to Cannon, presumably they are with Cannon’s private papers, wherever they are today.

Further, as Mayer wrote in the New Yorker in 2011, “Dr. Lawrence Altman, who covered Reagan’s health for the Times during his Presidency, wrote that in ‘my extensive interviews with his White House doctors, key aides and others, I found no evidence that Mr. Reagan exhibited signs of dementia as president.’ And, wrote Altman, Reagan’s official biographer, Edmund Morris, never saw any signs of Alzheimer’s and he had close, unfettered access to the Gipper for years. A thousand Reagan White House aides will also attest as to Reagan’s superior faculties. But all this evidence is of little interest to O’Reilly.

Too bad O’Reilly chose to write a very bad book about Reagan, although I understand his other books also have serious historical inaccuracies as well. Too bad he chose to join liberals in falsely tearing Reagan down. Much damage has been done as a result. Reagan biographers will have to take the shovels out again and clean up the disarray O’Reilly made.

George Will was right. Bill O’Reilly has “made a mess of history.”

Craig Shirley is a Reagan biographer, having written four books on the Gipper including his newest, "Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan."
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