George Will discovers the idea of "facts"

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The news recently has been full of the debate between George F. Will and Bill O'Reilly. This started because of O'Reilly's book Killing Reagan, whose central premise is that the unsuccessful 1981 assassination attempt was, in a deeper sense, successful. Will explains why this premise is important ("Bill O'Reilly makes a mess of history", Washington Post 10/10/2015):

The prolific O'Reilly has, with his collaborator Martin Dugard, produced five "history" books in five years: "Killing Lincoln," "Killing Kennedy, "Killing Jesus," "Killing Patton" and now the best-selling "Killing Reagan." Because no one actually killed Reagan, O'Reilly keeps his lucrative series going by postulating that the bullet that struck Reagan in March 1981 kind of, sort of killed him, although he lived 23 more years.

O'Reilly "reports" that the trauma of the assassination attempt was somehow causally related to the "fact" that Reagan was frequently so mentally incompetent that senior aides contemplated using the Constitution's 25th Amendment to remove him from office. But neither O'Reilly nor Dugard spoke with any of those aides — not with Ed Meese, Jim Baker, George Shultz or any of the scores of others who could, and would, have demolished O'Reilly's theory. O'Reilly now airily dismisses them because they "have skin in the game." His is an interesting approach to writing history: Never talk to anyone with firsthand knowledge of your subject.

Instead, O'Reilly made the book's "centerpiece" a memo he has never seen and never tried to see until 27 days after the book was published.

I have no evidence that bears on this argument one way or the other. I can point to a study from last spring that found suggestive early signs of Alzheimer's in the language of President Reagan's unscripted responses in news conferences over the course of his presidency ("Early Alzheimer's signs in Reagan's speech", 4/12/2015). However, as that post reports, the NYT story on the topic is not especially supportive of O'Reilly's theory about the effects of the assassination attempt — Lawrence Altman, "Parsing Ronald Reagan's Words for Early Signs of Alzheimer's", NYT 3/30/2015:

Even before Ronald Reagan became the oldest elected president, his mental state was a political issue. His adversaries often suggested his penchant for contradictory statements, forgetting names and seeming absent-mindedness could be linked to dementia.

In 1980, Mr. Reagan told me that he would resign the presidency if White House doctors found him mentally unfit. Years later, those doctors and key aides told me they had not detected any changes in his mental abilities while in office.

But I'm struck by George Will's apparent fervor for fact-checking, giving his own cavalier approach to matters of easily-verifiable fact when he's pursuing one of his prejudices in attack mode rather than on the defense. For details, see e.g.

"Fact-checking George F. Will", 6/7/2009
"Fact-checking George F. Will, one more time", 10/6/2009
"Another lie from George F. Will", 5/7/2012
"More BS from George F. Will", 8/28/2015

If you're pressed for time, I'd recommend the October 2009 post, in which I was moved to ask "How in the world did our culture  award major-pundit status to someone whose writings are as empirically and spiritually empty as those of George F. Will?".

You can watch Will and O'Reilly going at it on Fox News:

Update — As KeithB points out in the comments, a good source of relevant facts is Charles Pierce, "Bill O'Reilly Is Right on Ronald Reagan's Battle with Alzheimer's", Esquire 11/9/2015.



4 Comments

  1. GeorgeW said,

    November 13, 2015 @ 8:20 am

    Wow! This seems to be a bitter dispute between two true believers over whether Regan was a mere saint with some human frailties or divine and infallible.

  2. KeithB said,

    November 13, 2015 @ 9:14 am

    Charles Pierce had a good article on this:
    http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/politics/news/a39561/bill-oreilly-reagan-alzheimers/

  3. Theophylact said,

    November 13, 2015 @ 9:25 am

    Go it, hunter; go it, bear!

  4. Matt McIrvin said,

    November 15, 2015 @ 11:24 am

    @KeithB: The detail about physical trauma as a trigger turned on a lightbulb in my head. My maternal grandfather had increasing dementia that his doctors ascribed to Alzheimer's, though there was no autopsy to prove that. But as far as I could tell, he was never the same after he had surgery for a brain aneurysm in the late 1980s.

    Probably it was the trigger, just as Hinckley's bullet was for Reagan.

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