STEVE INSKEEP, host: During stressful times in American life, many of us look back on our history for comfort or guidance. So it may be no surprise that an upcoming book by Chris Matthews, the MSNBC television host, is a biography of President John F. Kennedy. Earlier this year on MORNING EDITION, Robert Redford discussed his movie about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
And now, Bill O'Reilly of Fox News has put out a book called "Killing Lincoln." O'Reilly and his co-author, Martin Dugard, examine the plot against the president at the end of the Civil War in April of 1865, and they also reconstruct the final days of Lincoln's life. Bill O'Reilly, welcome to the program.
BILL O'REILLY: Thank you, Steve. I appreciate you having me in.
INSKEEP: What draws you to Lincoln and to that particular moment?
O'REILLY: Well, I'm very concerned about leadership in America right now, and this isn't a knock on any specific elected official, but I think that we are lacking leadership. And in my opinion - I'm a former history teacher, I got a history degree from Marist College - President Abraham Lincoln was our best leader, for a variety of reasons.
And I wanted to draw attention to him and write a book that was very dramatic and very exciting to read, but at the same time, show Americans what true leadership is, so that they can compare it to what we have today, and perhaps maybe seek out better leaders.
INSKEEP: Well, I love that you bring up Lincoln as an example, because so many people admire him today, of course. But you also write in this book - this is a quote from the book, in the present tense, "In 1865, he is by far the most despised and reviled president in American history." What made him seem that way to a lot of people at the time?
O'REILLY: Well, obviously, the South hated him, and many in the North just didn't want to make the sacrifice. There was a lot of racism in the North, obviously, and they said, why are we losing hundreds of thousands of people and fighting this bloody, prolonged war when we don't really care that much?
INSKEEP: Well, what made him a great leader, given that circumstance that so many people were opposed to him or anxious about the course that he was taking?
O'REILLY: Two things: perseverance and compassion. Even in the darkest days, Lincoln didn't give up. He didn't panic. He stayed and he fought hard. And the compassion is demonstrated by Lincoln's - every week, Lincoln would accept correspondence from the regular folks. And I write in "Killing Lincoln," it's an amazing situation. You could go to the White House. Anybody could roam around. If you wanted into the White House, they would let you go into the physical building and roam around.
There was no security to stop you. There were actually people who Abraham Lincoln didn't know, sleeping in the hallways of the White House trying to get to Lincoln with a petition or whatever. And he would take some of those petitions.
INSKEEP: He would see people. He would give them time.
O'REILLY: He would see - absolutely, widows, and people who were in trouble. And then he would turn over their letters and write things on the bottom of the letter, let this be done, let this woman see her son who's incarcerated, whatever it may be - very, very compassionate man on an individual basis.
INSKEEP: What did you think when you went back and read the media in those days, you know, it would say that Lincoln's a dictator, that Grant's a drunk, that General Sherman is insane? Everybody was ripped up at one time or another.
O'REILLY: Well, that's what the media is today. The media remarkably hasn't changed since Benjamin Franklin was - written "Poor Richard's Almanac." The media is a bunch of guttersnipes and, you know, low - what can I tell you? I mean, look. I'm in the media. I've been doing it for 35 years. I know the media as well as anybody in the world knows it. And there are always going to be people who try to make money by slamming other people and by, you know, creating all kinds of stuff that doesn't really get us anywhere.
INSKEEP: Do you think you add to that sometimes?
O'REILLY: You know, I try not to do it personally. I think that we bring a robust debate to the nation every night. I think we try to stay away from the personal stuff. We try to back up our opinions with facts. So, yeah. I mean, you can accuse me of anything you want, but, you know, I'm trying to do the right thing.
INSKEEP: What do you think when you hear people complain about the quality, not just in the media, but of political discourse today, that it's departed from reality, for example?
O'REILLY: Well, I mean, if it's departed from reality, then we have to isolate the people who are doing that. President Obama was right in his Arizona speech, that he said, look, you know, you can't enflame to the point where you hate each other. That's not what America is supposed to be. But what can he do? I don't see him, his rhetoric, he doesn't do that. I don't see personal attacks coming from Mr. Obama.
But some of his acolytes, they just can't help themselves. And on the other side, there are people who just hate him, and everything he does is bad. And I criticize those people just as much.
INSKEEP: Some people will know that you interviewed President Obama, at least twice. Is it twice so far?
O'REILLY: Yeah, twice.
INSKEEP: And if I'm not mistaken, after one of those interviews in the White House, he took you to the Lincoln Bedroom to look around.
O'REILLY: Yeah, both President Bush - who I interviewed three times - and President Obama know that I'm very interested in Abraham Lincoln, and both presidents are, as well, interestingly enough. George W. Bush is a very strong student of Lincoln. And President Obama, he has studied Lincoln in the same way I did on a personal level.
So after the Super Bowl interview was over, he was kind enough, the president, to take me up to the Lincoln Bedroom, which I had never been in there before. And then, there in the bedroom, on a podium, is Lincoln's handwritten Gettysburg Address that he wrote out in his own hand. And, I mean, it'll almost make you cry.
INSKEEP: You're also writing, Bill O'Reilly, about a period in history where I think it's fair to say the political system broke. There was this great issue facing the country. They tried to deal with it. They couldn't deal with it over time, and in the end, it led to a war and hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Do you wonder if the political system is breaking now?
O'REILLY: Well, I don't think it's breaking. I mean, I think we have a robust two-party system in the United States. We have a media that, while flawed and irresponsible in many levels, does keep an eye on what's going on, and that the people really get both sides of the story and most Americans overwhelmingly love their country.
So I don't see any fracture along those lines. I do see that zealotry, probably, is way higher than it should be. Dishonesty in the media is almost at a scandalous level. But there's so much media now, with the PCs and all of that social network. There's so much, that I think Americans, if they really try and they think, they can get the real story.
INSKEEP: Although I'm just thinking about the media today, if Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address today, it would be far too long for an evening news soundbite. It'd be far too long for a tweet. Somebody would write about it on a blog that favored Lincoln, but other people might ignore it or denounce it. I just wonder.
O'REILLY: Well, yeah, but it would probably still get on CSPAN, and it would probably still get on a lot of Internet sites, the hate-Lincoln and love-Lincoln sites. So, you know, it's a balance. I think Abraham Lincoln would be proud of his country today. He would certainly be proud that it elected a man like Barack Obama of mixed race, certainly Lincoln would be proud of that.
And I don't see it as dire as some other people see it. I'm fairly optimistic that if we can get this economic stuff under control, America will make a stunning comeback.
INSKEEP: Bill O'Reilly is co-author with Martin Dugard of "Killing Lincoln." Thanks very much.
O'REILLY: All right, Steve. Pleasure to talk to you.
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