In his best-selling book Killing Kennedy, Bill O’Reilly tells a brief tale of an intrepid reporter — himself — chasing the historical truth of JFK’s assassination in south Florida. But the story itself is a fiction, as O’Reilly reveals here in his own voice.
In the annals of the JFK assassination story, rife with CIA and FBI malfeasance, O’Reilly’s fanciful anecdote might seem trivial. It is not the saddest feature of a book that manages to ignore all of the high-quality JFK assassination scholarship of the last two decades.
But as O’Reilly’s yarn is presented as fact in USA Today and the Fort-Worth Telegram; as his book dominates the best-seller charts; and as a credulous National Geographic embarks on making a documentary of Killing Kennedy, O’Reilly’s credibility matters.
In O’Reilly’s account, the dramatic incident happened on March 29, 1977. The Fox News talk show host was then a 28-year-old television reporter in Dallas seeking to make a name for himself by investigating a popular subject that media elites habitually disdained: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Working in Dallas at a time when Congress re-opened the JFK investigation in the mid-1970s, O’Reilly scored some real scoops, especially about a man named George de Mohrenschildt. A Russian emigre who moved in both European high society and the American underworld, de Mohrenschildt would have made a splendid character in a Graham Greene novel, except he was a real living CIA asset involved in the suspicious events that would culminate in JFK’s murder on Dallas on November 22,1963.
De Mohrenschildt was good copy. He was probably the only person on the planet on friendly terms with both the family of First Lady Jackie Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald, the man accused of killing her husband. De Mohrenschildt may not have been a paid CIA employee, but as JFK investigators closed in on him, he expected CIA assistance. In September 1976, he wrote to CIA director George H.W. Bush seeking help for his “hopeless situation.” Bush, the only CIA director to become president, ignored him, while privately telling CIA colleagues they had a slight acquaintance. De Mohrenschildt’s testimony to the House Select Committee on Assassinations was expected to be explosive.
O’Reilly spins the story with third person modesty in Killing Kennedy (p. 300), calling himself “the reporter.” He wrote that he
“traced de Mohrenschildt to Palm Beach, Florida and travelled there to confront him. At the time de Mohrenschildt had been called to testify before a congressional committee looking into the events of November 1963. As the reporter knocked on the door of de Mohrenschildt’s daughter’s home, he heard the shotgun blast that marked the suicide of the Russian, assuring that his relationship with Lee Harvey Oswald would never be fully understood.
By the way, that reporter’s name is Bill O’Reilly.”
It’s a vivid story and well told. It’s also mostly imaginary. In fact, the reporter named Bill O’Reilly was in Dallas, Texas, on that day.
The truth can be heard on a cassette tape made by Gaeton Fonzi, a congressional investigator who was O’Reilly’s most reliable source on the JFK story. Fonzi wrote about that day in his 1993 memoir, The Last Investigation: “About 6:30 that evening I received a call from Bill O’Reilly, a friend who was then a television reporter in Dallas,” wrote Fonzi, who died in August 2012. In Fonzi’s account, O’Reilly told him that he had just received a tip that de Mohrenschildt had committed suicide.
A recording of three phone conversations between Fonzi and O’Reilly on March 29, 1977, confirms Fonzi’s account. Fonzi’s widow, Marie Fonzi, shared the tape with JFK Facts.
“Gaet liked O’Reilly and did lots to help him,” Marie Fonzi said in an email. “He hired him in the early ’70s when editor of Miami Magazine at $25 a month to write movie reviews. He wrote letters of reference for him and was instrumental in getting him his first TV shot.” But she adds, “I knowO’Reilly was in Dallas” on March 29, 1977. “There is no question about it.”
O’Reilly is right about one thing. He was indeed pursuing George de Mohrenschildt in March 1977, but he did not reach his doorstep in Palm Beach on March 29, 1977, and he certainly did not hear de Mohrenschildt’s demise with his own ears. When the fatal shot rang out, O’Reilly was in his office at the WFAA studios in Dallas, Texas, more than 1,200 miles away. The confirmation comes from O’Reilly himself as he calls Fonzi to break the news.
“We just got a call from de Mohrenshildt’s lawyer saying he committed suicide in Miami today,” the caller says — just as O’Reilly was quoted in Fonzi’s book.”You hear anything about it?”
Fonzi tells the caller (obviously someone he has a working relationship with) that he had tried to find de Mohrenschildt at a residence in Palm Beach at 11:30 that morning and was told he wasn’t home.
“So as far you know he’s still alive?” the reporter asks. Fonzi wants to know when the caller received the tip.
“We just got the call twenty minutes ago,” the caller says.
“That’s 6:30 here,” Fonzi says, indicating that he understands the reporter is calling from a different time zone. Fonzi tells the reporter he’ll check out the story and get right back to him.
Fonzi then calls de Mohrenschildt’s house, and gets the runaround from a man answering the phone (a police investigator already called to the suicide scene). He hangs up. and The phone rings again.
“Bill?” Fonzi opens.
“Yeah,” the caller responds.
Fonzi tells Bill he cannot confirm de Mohrenschildt is dead. Like a good reporter, Bill says he has been trying to run down the story by telephone from Texas. “I checked every medical examiner from Satellite Beach to Key West,” he says, “and there’s no report on this.” He says he’s going to keep working on the story and he asks Fonzi to call him if he learns anything. He hangs up.
Fonzi makes a flurry of calls to his sources in Florida and confirms the story. Then O’Reilly calls for a third time.
“Gaeton,” the caller says. “Bill O’Reilly.” Fonzi shares some details of the story, and O’Reilly tells him his travel plans. “I’m coming down there tomorrow,” he says. “I’m coming to Florida.”
Fonzi tells him to get in contact when he arrives.
“I’m going to take a night flight if I can,” O’Reilly says, “but I may have to go tomorrow morning.”
O’Reilly’s utterances prove that he was not knocking on George Mohrenschildt’s doorstep as he now melodramatically claims. The truth is more prosaic. O’Reilly got a tip on a hot story, worked his sources to confirm it, and rushed to the scene. In making up this story for Killing Kennedy, he slighted the truth of his own professionalism.
Which tells you something about the state of popular history and JFK’s assassination as the 50th anniversary of that formative moment approaches next fall. I’m not going to say Bill O’Reilly is liar, just because I sometimes disagree with his politics. His fib isn’t an outrage. It’s sad.
In 1977 O’Reilly pursued the JFK story with rare tenacity. He found reliable sources like Gaeton Fonzi who tried to pierce the veil of secrecy that certain CIA officers tried to draw around their own knowledge of Oswald. In 1991 O’Reilly, reporting for Inside Edition, told the troubling story of David Atlee Phillips, a high-ranking “psychological warfare” specialist who was reportedly seen in the company of Lee Harvey Oswald.
It was tough piece. It was fair. It was balanced. The younger O’Reilly dared to air the sort of well-reported JFK story that timid editors inside the Beltway avoid for fear they might be labelled “conspiracy theorists” or “anti-CIA,” lethal epithets in the struggle for influence.
Now the wildly successful O’Reilly has let down conservative (and liberal) readers who look to him for a skeptical voice about dubious Big Government claims. He never mentions Fonzi, the source who introduced him to the subject and whose memoir is both passionate and careful. O’Reilly has joined the lofty yet lazy elite media consensus that he once had the temerity to flout. Now he too says JFK was killed by a lone nut, not his enemies.
Marie Fonzi says she doesn’t know if her late husband would have responded to Killing Kennedy. He “might just shake his head in sorrow that his friend Bill had sold out,” she wrote. “Or … he might get really angry,” which he rarely did.
One thing is certain: The young Bill O’Reilly had the nerve to call and report. The current Bill O’Reilly has the impulse to avoid and embellish. In one little fib, O’Reilly reveals how he abandoned fact-gathering in favor of myth-making.
As for the JFK documentarians at National Geographic, this might be a good time to hire an extra fact checker.
AUDIO HIGHLIGHTS Bill O’Reilly explains where he was and what he was doing on March 29, 1977.
1. ”We just got a call from de Mohrenschildt’s lawyer”
2. ”I checked every medical examiner from Satellite Beach to Key West”
3. ”I’m coming down there tomorrow. I’m coming to Florida.”
4) All of Gaeton Fonzi’s phone calls that evening, including his three conversations with Bill O’Reilly.
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