Friday, July 10, 2009

Why History Gets Rewritten --And Why Journalists Can't Always Be Trusted

I'm going to do something I don't like to do: I'm going to give a shout-out to someone that I don't like and who doesn't (didn't) like me back. Years ago in grad school, I took (more than) one class from noted historian Dr. Joan Hoff. A bit of a dissonance there, to be sure, and our last conversation was ...sub-optimal. And goodness knows she was far from conservative (oh come on, the "Broccoli" bumper sticker on the office door was a wee bit of a giveaway...). But she knew her stuff (and yes, she can be forgiven for not knowing the first woman U.S. governor, as Miriam "Ma" Ferguson was by no means a feminist pioneer), especially about Richard Nixon, a man she hated Back In The Day and still disliked but yet one could not help but note a certain respect in her tone hearing her discuss him.

Some folks thought it a wee bit odd when, in her Nixon course, she assigned Colodny and Getlin's Silent Coup, discussing an alternate version of the "standard heroic narrative" of Misters Woodward and Bernstein. John Dean figured prominently in their plot. She argued --and this was back in the early 90s, mind you-- that the full version of Watergate had yet to come out and would probably be substantially different from the one we all knew. Who knew how prescient she ended up being? Although the part about the composite "Deep Throat" has at least partially been discredited, the main thrust of the book is starting to look more and more attractive.

The whole thing does not pass the smell test: if Dean is clean, why is he still making such efforts to control his image? It's all so very... Nixonian. And now this: Watergate Figure John Dean Threatens to Sue Historian Over Damaging Tape Recordings. It makes me sad that a professor at Texas A&M would bow to this sort of thing: the Aggie Honor Code states that an Aggie does not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerates those who do. Professor Nichter, while not bound as a student, should nevertheless set a good example and fight the good fight over this. (Hell, man, would Terry Anderson put up with this BS?! No!!!)

It also is a good lesson in not putting too much trust in journalists. Not only do they frequently have agendas which they deliberately hide (I may not like Eric Alterman, for instance, but I respect him for wearing it on his sleeve), but their first-drafts of history have a bad habit of being way off (All The President's Men, anyone? [No, not written by them, but done with their blessing]).

(And if for some unfathomable reason you are reading this, Dr. J., I'll use the passive whenever I want --though not as much as I once did. And by damn if you weren't right about a thing or two! For those things, at least, thanks. Oh, and I'm a hell of a lot better instructor than writer, as it turns out. And yes, I'm still watching for signs, just like you are --not there yet, but getting disturbingly closer.)

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