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Culture 'Killing Reagan' places Sam Donaldson in a fictional confrontation with the president

‘Killing Reagan’ places Sam Donaldson in a fictional confrontation with the president

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In a busy book season for Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, the film version of “Killing Reagan” debuts Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on National Geographic Channel. By the attestation of the famous author, the “Killing Reagan” franchise rests on firm factual ground. “In researching and writing this book, Martin Dugard and I were extremely careful to use only material we could confirm through at least two sources, and even then we tried to be very fair in presenting facts that might put certain individuals in a bad light,” writes O’Reilly in a note on methodology in the book.

Two sources, however, confirm to The Washington Post that a famous sequence in the book didn’t happen the way “Killing Reagan” described it.

On page 227 of the controversial book, O’Reilly and Dugard describe a compelling scene that went down on Aug. 1, 1984 at Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s Rancho del Cielo in Santa Barbara, California. On the schedule was a meeting with Archbishop Pio Laghi, Apostolic delegate to the United States. As was customary, pool journalists tried to sneak in a question or two for the president as he went about his business. One historical source records that an “informal exchange with reporters” occurred.

“Killing Reagan” places the events in present tense, the better to fulfill the “Killing” series’ promise of historical thrillingness. The central character in the storytelling is Sam Donaldson, the unforgettable ABC News correspondent who made a career of holding Reagan accountable, quite often at the top of his lungs. Let’s just let “Killing Reagan” carry the ball from here:

“The first queries are softballs. Reagan fields them with ease. Then ABC newsman Sam Donaldson strikes, posing a question about the Russians. ‘Is there anything you can do to get them there?’ Donaldson asks about a proposed nuclear arms meeting in Vienna, referring to the leaders of the Soviet Union. ‘What?’ Reagan asks, suddenly befuddled. Donaldson smells blood. He has been on the White House beat throughout the Reagan presidency and is no fan of the administration. He was an eyewitness to the assassination attempt, standing just five feet from John Hinckley when he pulled the trigger. Still, Donaldson feels little warmth for the president, and many members of the media share his disdain. Donaldson doesn’t even bother to speak to Reagan with a tone of civility. He is outwardly antagonistic, often shouting questions. He has publicly insulted Nancy Reagan by comparing her to a venomous snake, calling her a ‘smiling mamba.’ Sam Donaldson is now in full confrontational mode. ‘Is there anything you can do to get them to Vienna?’ he bellows again. The man who has spent his life speaking on cue, the entertainer who likes to tell a good joke, the politician who has dazzled millions with his rhetoric, has no answer. Ronald Reagan is lost. As journalists and television cameras record the moment, the president seems incapable of rendering an answer to Sam Donaldson. Finally, Nancy Reagan leans over and whispers into her husband’s ear: ‘We’re doing everything we can.’ ‘We’re doing everything we can,’ the president says to Sam Donaldson.”

Except: “I wasn’t there,” says the 82-year-old ex-ABC Newser to The Post from his home in New Mexico.

“I was down in Santa Barbara with the rest of the press corps,” remembers Donaldson, noting that a small contingent of poolers were at the ranch. And he wasn’t one of them.

After a little poking around, we got Charles Bierbauer, a former CNN senior White House correspondent, on the line. We read to him the exchange at the ranch from Aug. 1, 1984. When we asked if he was the one who’d asked those questions about talks with Soviet leaders, he said, “I was.”

Then we read him the full passage in “Killing Reagan.” A protracted chuckling came over the line. “Well, it happened,” said Bierbauer, who is now dean of the College of Information and Communications at the University of South Carolina. “It didn’t happen quite like that.”

To correct the record, Donaldson wasn’t there; Donaldson didn’t pose a question about “the Russians”; Donaldson didn’t smell blood; Donaldson didn’t hurl himself into “full confrontational mode”; Reagan doesn’t say “We’re doing everything we can” to Donaldson. In his 1987 book “Hold on, Mr. President,” Donaldson credited Bierbauer with the line of questioning, he tells The Post.

More revisions to O’Reilly’s history, however, may be required. The idea that “shouting questions” is a function of Donaldson’s antagonism toward the president doesn’t square with the circumstances of covering Reagan, says Bierbauer. Three reasons account for the interrogation volume, he insists: 1) Reporters were kept at a distance of 70 feet or so from the president; 2) the president was hard of hearing; 3) there was often the buzz of a helicopter to shout over. “It’s why we all shouted. Sam just shouted louder,” recalls Bierbauer.

Though “Killing Reagan” was first published a year ago, Bierbauer confesses he never read it or any other of the “Killing” books. “I don’t read a whole lot of fiction … and I’m assuming they’re historically based fiction.”

A Reagan scholar that the O’Reilly-Dugard team had enlisted to fact-check the “Killing Reagan” manuscript pulled out of the job after reading it over. O’Reilly has stoutly defended the accuracy of not only “Killing Reagan,” but also other volumes in the “Killing” series.

Whatever the reportorial efforts behind it, “Killing Reagan” met a wave of debunking from Reagan scholars and others upon its release. For instance, even after the publication date, the authors were still seeking a Reagan-era memo that was critical to the book’s very premise. George F. Will, among other students of the Reagan presidency, scoffed at the idea in “Killing Reagan” that the assassination attempt of March 1981 hobbled the president throughout his time in office: “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,” wrote Will.

So incensed by Will’s criticism was O’Reilly that he confronted the longtime columnist on “The O’Reilly Factor” and called him a “hack.”

Inquiries to the book’s publisher, Henry Holt & Co., and to Dugard, didn’t fetch responses. Reagan Library archives feature photos of Reagan’s activities on Aug. 1, 1984, though a researcher with the library told The Post that a search through some boxes at the library’s press office didn’t turn up any official record of who questioned Reagan that day.

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