Why Bill O’Reilly Is Wrong About Reagan

Seemingly everyone who knows anything about our 40th president thinks the Fox News pundit’s book is a disservice to history.

11.09.15 6:00 AM ET

There’s a classic episode of Star Trek in which the normally responsible Chief Engineer Scotty punches a Klingon. Captain Kirk launches an investigation to find out who threw the first punch—and why. After some prodding, he discovers that Scotty was willing to turn the other cheek when the Klingon was criticizing Kirk’s leadership. It was only after criticizing the Starship Enterprise that Scotty decided to give him a knuckle sandwich.

Some things are worth fighting for. On a space station, criticizing someone’s spaceship might warrant a fat lip. On the set of Fox News, attacking the legacy of Ronald Reagan can elicit a similar response. And so, it was no surprise when a heated argument took place Friday night on The O’Reilly Factor between host Bill O’Reilly and conservative columnist George Will over Reagan’s legacy.

“You are actively misleading the American people,” O’Reilly averred.

“You are somewhat of an expert on actively misleading,” Will retorted.

O’Reilly countered, saying: “You are lying.” He later dismissed Will as a “hack.”

In case you haven’t been paying attention, this feud between a Fox News host and a Fox News contributor was sparked by a piece Will penned on Thursday titled, “Bill O’Reilly Slanders Ronald Reagan.” It was merely the latest example of conservatives bashing O’Reilly’s new book Killing Reagan.

In the weeks before Will decided he had enough, O’Reilly had come under fire from several prominent Reagan historians and experts, including Craig Shirley (author of four books about the former president), Kiron K. Skinner (a research fellow at the Hoover Institution), Paul Kengor (an author and professor at Grove City College), and Steven F. Hayward (policy scholar and author of The Age of Reagan). On Oct. 21, former Attorney General Ed Meese also weighed in, chastising O’Reilly for spinning a fictional yarn.

Apart from advancing salacious rumors about Reagan being sexually promiscuous, the primary criticism of O’Reilly’s account centers on the author’s argument that Reagan, who announced he was afflicted with Alzheimer’s in 1994, experienced declining mental capacity—especially during his second term—and might have been incapable of performing his duties as president.

While that’s troublesome enough, plenty of more qualified experts—people who actually knew Reagan—have done a pretty good job of undermining this canard.

But a more subtle assertion found in the book also deserves some attention: O’Reilly and his co-author Martin Dugard subtly insinuate that Reagan was never really that bright to begin with. We are told, for example, that Richard Nixon always considered Reagan “‘shallow’ and of ‘limited mental capacity.’”

This isn’t a central theme of the book, but it is arguably more insidious, inasmuch as it is less sensational and absurd than believing the most successful president of my lifetime was out of it for part of his tenure.

In the course of researching my forthcoming book on the modern Republican Party, I found example after example that Reagan was better read and more intelligent than he is given credit for.

For example, Lee Edwards, a historian of the American conservative movement, recounted a 1965 visit he made to the Reagan home (as recalled in National Review) when Reagan was contemplating running for governor of California. At one point during the visit, Edwards availed himself of an opportunity to secretly peruse Reagan’s bookshelves.

“I went over and began looking at the titles,” Edwards said. “They were history, biography, economics, politics. All serious stuff.” … “They were dog-eared. They were annotated. They were smudged by his fingers, and so forth. This was a man who had read hundreds of books. It was clear that he had read them, had digested them, and had studied them,” Edwards continued. “I knew right away, this was a thinking conservative. This was a man who loved ideas…”

In his memoir, The Prince of Darkness, reporter and columnist Bob Novak recalled how he and his partner, Rowland Evans, were taken aback during a meeting with Reagan, in which the president dazzled them with his knowledge of relatively obscure economic philosophers: “Describing himself as a ‘voracious reader,’ Reagan cited nineteenth-century British free trade advocates John Bright and Richard Cobden and twentieth-century Austrian free market economists Ludwig von Mises and Fredrick von Hayek.” Ultimately, Novak conceded, “Reagan was better read and better educated than we were.”

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And evidence of Reagan’s seriousness and smarts isn’t just anecdotal. Aside from his many accomplishments in the White House (the best argument for his intellect), he wrote and delivered countless radio addresses between 1976 and 1980. In a New York Times book review of Reagan, in His Own Hand, David Brooks noted, “Reagan covered everything from bilingual education to the Panama Canal.”

His own staff sometimes furthered the myth of Reagan’s limited intellect. Bud McFarlane, his national security advisor, once said of Reagan, “He knows so little and accomplishes so much.” Likewise, friendly journalists (or, rather, the few who weren’t inherently hostile to Reagan) were befuddled. In a recent interview on Bill Kristol’s podcast, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer recalled that after a meeting with the president that yielded little news or insight, he left confused. How could the president be so successful, yet insist on regaling everyone with old Hollywood stories during their lunch meeting, he wondered.

“It took me years to realize that that’s how [Reagan] preferred to present himself,” Krauthammer recalled. “He had no need to show himself to be smart… and he just wanted to tell stories, deflect me, and charm me. And it was part of his persona… He never had to show himself to be the smartest guy in the room.” Then, citing a famous Saturday Night Live skit that portrayed a shrewd and Machiavellian Reagan posing as a simpleton in front of the press, Krauthammer continued, “It’s wise to be underestimated. That was part of Reagan’s great political talent.”

So where did this talent come from? “Reagan, when he was in elementary or junior high school, figured out that the smartest guy in class is not the most popular guy in class,” explained journalist Fred Barnes (also on Kristol’s podcast). Recalling a theory that had been bandied about by Reagan intimates, Barnes said: “Reagan realized he wanted to be the most popular guy… and Reagan fashioned this person who doesn’t appear that smart—but really a common man who fit in with the American people… It worked marvelously, and it got him elected.”

Aside from downplaying his intellect, Reagan also played up a cowboy image that some elites may have found unsophisticated. When press secretary Marlin Fitzwater wanted to release a list of nonfiction books Reagan was reading, in order to undermine the notion he was simply reading Louis L’Amour Westerns, Reagan refused. Years earlier, Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger made sure The Gipper, then running for governor of California, switched out of his English riding boots (and into Western garb) before meeting with a reporter.

Back to O’Reilly: When making a charge as provocative as this, one might seek to go above and beyond the call of duty, in terms of research. This is especially true when considering the stakes involved in making accusations that could potentially tarnish the legacy of a revered former president.

But that doesn’t seem to have happened with Killing Reagan. “Ed Meese was, from Sacramento to Washington, Reagan’s longest-serving advisor. George Shultz was Reagan’s confidant and secretary of state. James Baker served Reagan as chief of staff and treasury secretary. None were contacted in connection with the book. Scores of Reagan’s White House aides would have shredded the book’s preposterous premise, which might be why they were not interviewed,” Will, whose wife Mari worked for Reagan throughout his presidency, wrote. During their segment, O’Reilly told Will that he didn’t talk to these people because “They have skin in the game.”

Actually, all conservatives have skin in the game. As Will noted Friday night, O’Reilly is “dong the work of the Left, which knows that in order to discredit conservatism, it must destroy Reagan’s reputation as a president.”

Unfortunately, critics of Reagan’s intellectual capacity are greatly aided by the fact that the former president enjoyed feigning the image of an “amiable dunce,” as Clark Clifford once described him, but it was Reagan’s own style that aides them most.

By adopting a sort of “everyman” shtick, Reagan continued a trend started by Dwight Eisenhower, who posed as a bumbler to parry and evade media inquiries. But he also helped reinforce the trope about Republicans being the “stupid” party—a stereotype the GOP is still battling. Like George W. Bush, who would follow, Ronald Reagan always enjoyed being “misunderestimated.” Unfortunately, the act worked so well that it gave his enemies fodder, and it even fooled some of his ostensible friends—like Mr. O’Reilly.

Matt Lewis is author of the forthcoming book Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections (and How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots), which will be released on Jan. 26, 2016.