Monday, November 26, 2007

Cleanup in the history aisle, please

The well-worn saying is that those who fail to heed history are doomed to repeat it.

This recent effort by the Wall Street Journal, however, shows that those who go about repeating it need to remember to study it carefully first.

There was a little factual spillage in the Nov. 15 Wonder Land column by Daniel Henninger, "1968: The Long Goodbye." And apparently all the copy editors had gone on break and there was no one to clean it up. (Warning: Parts of the online offering have since been cleaned up, but as of this posting there still is enough mayhem for a good frolic through the history books -- or, as those of us my age like to call it, recent memory.)

Here's part of the story. OK, boys and girls, how many potholes, booby traps and improvised factual devices can you find:

The year began with sales of the Beatles album, "Magical Mystery Tour." In retrospect, it was a premonition. In late January, North Korea captured the USS Pueblo and crew members. A week later, the North Vietnamese army launched the Tet offensive. On Feb. 27, Walter Cronkite announced on CBS News that the U.S. had to negotiate a settlement to the Vietnam War. On March 12, Sen. Gene McCarthy defeated incumbent President Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, aided by antiwar students that Sen. McCarthy called his "children's crusade." Two weeks later, LBJ announced on TV that he would not run for re-election. One week later, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It was only April 4.

There were race riots everywhere. On April 24, students occupied five buildings at Columbia University, protesting the war. In May bloody student riots erupted in France, likely witnessed by the impressionable Mr. Sarkozy.

On July 3, Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol in a New York City loft. The next day, Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Robert F. Kennedy Jr. In August, the Soviet Union occupied Czechoslovakia. Seven days later, antiwar demonstrators at the Democratic convention fought pitched battles with the Chicago police.

On Nov. 4, having absorbed all this, the people of the United States voted. They gave 43.4% of their vote to Richard Nixon and 42.7% to Hubert Humphrey. Alabama Gov. George Wallace got 13.5%. Four years later, George Wallace was shot dead while running for president. 1968 lasted a long time.
The big clunker, of course, is the notation that Wallace was shot "dead." He was wounded and paralyzed, and lived 30 more years. That alone was enough of a red flag that a copy editor should have dived in.

The second thing that most any student of U.S. politics (i.e., copy editors) should have known was that Eugene McCarthy did not beat LBJ. He came within 7 percentage points, convincing Johnson that maybe it was time to hang up the presidential spurs.

But wait, there's more!

  • With the New Hampshire primary on March 12, saying LBJ made his announcement "two weeks later" is stretching it a bit. He made the announcement March 31, 19 days later, or almost three weeks.
  • Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol on June 3, not July 3.
  • Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Robert F. Kennedy, not Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is the former attorney general's son.
  • The assassination was June 5, not June 4 as the wording after the Warhol shooting misstep would lead you to believe (had the date been right to start with).
  • The general election that year was Nov. 5, not Nov. 4
And a point of interpretation: Though the article says the Columbia occupation was April 24, the march to Morningside Park and subsequent occupation of Hamilton Hall, I believe, was April 23. It was the morning of the 24th that the groups agreed to spread out and occupy other buildings, moving into the president's office in Low Library.

Wonder Land indeed -- you wonder how this got through a normally well-edited paper.

The sad thing is that the Wall Street Journal has, as of this posting, only officially corrected the McCarthy error. A change to the Wallace wording, to say he was wounded, was slipped into the online version without acknowledgment the original was wrong. And none of the other items has been touched.

Let's hope little Johnny or Janie don't decided to pull this one out of the archives for that school assignment. I can hear it now: "But Teach, the facts ate my homework."

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At 11/26/07, 9:20 PM, Blogger Gary Gardiner said...

To add to the inaccuracies, "Magical Mystery Tour," the album, was released in 1967. Perhaps there is some confusion with The White Album, released in late 1968.

While Lennon's "Strawberry Fields Forever" and McCartney's "Penny Lane" are important songs, and "All You Need Is Love" became an anthem for the Flower Power movement, The White Album is more significant.

It appears the reference to "Magical Mystery Tour" is nothing more than an attempt at a cute first graf.

At 11/27/07, 4:50 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Good points. I hesitated on that one because I had some differing info -- late '67 or early '68. I think the confusion was over the rolling release of the film. I've seen enough references now to the album's release in November 1967.

At 11/27/07, 4:53 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Actually, I guess his wording on that one is squishy enough to allow him a counter-argument: The year certainly began with sales of the album (though it was released late the previous year).

Better, of course, would be:
The year began with sales of the Beatles album, "Magical Mystery Tour," released late the previous year.


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