Any recent glance at the non-fiction best-seller list might convince the casual reader that presidential history New York Times is thriving. No fewer than three books about American presidents have ranked at or near the top of the chart.
But looking closer, it becomes apparent that none of these was written by a professional historian. Rather, they are the latest spin-off products of, heaven help us, TV “personalities.”
If there is one thing Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck and Chris Matthews have in common, it’s personality—in spades. The first two gentlemen also had co-authors to help them with their books. Matthews seems to have written his own, about John F. Kennedy, for whom he has exuberant admiration and some good yarns to spin. That doesn’t mean he’s another Arthur Schlesinger, although Schlesinger never had his own talk show.
Then there is Beck (and a writer named Kevin Balfe with whom he shares credit). Their book, Being George Washington, is all about courage under fire and the imperfections of a supposedly perfect man. It will not, I suspect, rank with Ron Chernow’s and James Thomas Flexner’s among the enduring biographies of the first president—even if it outsells them both.
I’ve left the most extraordinary of this new “talking head as biographer” genre for last. For Bill O’Reilly has not only made the best-seller compilations with Killing Lincoln, he has consistently dominated the Times, Amazon and Barnes & Noble lists for months with a book that is so excruciatingly painful to read, and so devoid of accurate history that I suppose its sales are a tribute to either the broadcaster’s popularity or the public’s gullibility.
Picking it apart brings me no pleasure, but since it purports to be a genuine Lincoln assassination book, it does require more attention than the others, at least on these pages. Suffice it to say that despite what O’Reilly and his co-author Martin Dugard tell us, Union Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton did not conspire in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln—a stubborn myth invented by another non-historian more than half a century ago and quickly disproved. Furthermore, John Wilkes Booth had about as much jealous rage in him over Robert Lincoln’s alleged crush on one of his girlfriends as Brad Pitt might have if one of Jimmy Carter’s sons made eyes at Angelina Jolie. Yet this canard, too, reappears in a book that O’Reilly has been touting on his own show, and others, as the most accurate assassination account ever written.
Still, the National Park Service went off the rails when it banned O’Reilly’s book because of its errors. Book-banning is wrong in any and all cases—let the buyer beware, not Big Brother—and this attempt at censorship was unbecoming of the agency. Give this to O’Reilly: He never tried to use the insult to sell more books. Of course, he couldn’t very well sell more books than he has.
I don’t want to sound jealous. Full disclosure: The closest I have ever come to the Times best-seller list was when I last checked it without my glasses in order to write this column. But I do have grave concerns about a history-reading public that has remained so indifferent, during this Civil War sesquicentennial, to so many terrific reads that should have made every list hands down.
Sadly absent was Amanda Foreman’s epic World on Fire, the best book ever written about the “other” struggle between the Union and the Confederacy—over British diplomatic recognition. Then there is Mark E. Neely’s Lincoln and the Triumph of the Nation, offering the shrewdest, most sophisticated, most dazzlingly argued case ever written for Abraham Lincoln’s constitutional nationalism. And where is Craig Symonds’ new Midway? It’s not a Civil War book, but a book by a great Civil War historian about a naval encounter that probably could not have occurred had not the Monitor engaged the Virginia some seven score years earlier, revolutionizing naval technology.
On the fiction side, by the way, Jeff Shaara hasn’t produced one of his fun-read historical novels lately, but attention should be paid to The Battle of the Crater, the latest Civil War novel by Newt Gingrich and William R. Fortstchen. Now, people who know me may be surprised at the affection in which I hold Newt and his books. But he’s unique: a practicing politician with a love of history and a particular affection for the Civil War, who knows how to tell a good story without making bloopers. His newest is about the U.S. Colored Troops, and it’s his best—and on a subject I’d bet my liberal friends would never believe he’d cover. Here’s a round of applause to the former speaker—for writing something worth reading amid an otherwise desultory swamp of bestsellers. Otherwise, why should we expect our politicians to know history if we don’t even expect our historians to know history, as long as they have an open microphone?
Why not, one might ask, have a separate best-seller list for Civil War publications? Indeed, one can be assembled using a service called Nielsen BookScan. Last year’s top titles actually give one hope: Foreman’s classic ranks high, along with Eric Foner’s award-winning The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, Adam Goodheart’s beautifully written 1861: The Civil War Awakening, and a volume I edited with the aforementioned Craig Symonds: The New York Times Civil War, snugly ensconced at No. 7.
Oh, yes, O’Reilly is No. 1 on this list, too, outpacing his closest rival by a ratio of some 7 to 1.
No matter. We’re in it for love, not popularity—right? But seriously: Does one really have to host a talk show to write about American history? I hope not.
Harold Holzer is chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.
Originally published in the May 2012 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.