Published on
Messenger Post Newspapers (New York)

History Will Tell Lies, Sir, As Usual

Michael Winship

Monday, Monday. Can't trust that day. The GOP always seems to purge its leadership ranks on Mondays -- just when I'm sweating the deadline for this column, so I have to start all over. I swear, it's the work of that vast right wing conspiracy. Go pick on somebody your own size, dammit.

The Tom DeLay resignation story broke late on a Monday night. Karl Rove resigned on a Monday. And now, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

What's more, I'm out of town on business in Chicago, staying in a lovely hotel but the designers went for the sixties retro look. I think the interior decorator was Our Man Flint. And techno pounds out of the elevator speakers until my head comes to a point.

But I digress. For those of us old enough to remember, the increasing thud of falling White House personnel is reminiscent of those halcyon days when Richard Nixon was announcing on a regular basis the departures of soon-to-be-indicted members of his administration: Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Dean, Colson; augmented by the slaughter of the innocent: Richardson, Ruckelshaus, Cox in the Saturday Night Massacre.

In the Bush White House, the resignations trickle in; Nixon often did it with a Grand Guignol flair, multiple head choppings with a single swing of the blade, desperate to save his own noggin. Like Macbeth, "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly." Except in the case of FBI Director L. Patrick Grey, who Ehrlichman infamously told Nixon to leave "twisting slowly in the wind."

God, I miss those guys.

Events of the last couple of weeks, including the Gonzales departure, are a reminder that the ghosts of history are ever present, but like all spirits, subject to interpretation. "Nothing changes more constantly than the past," the great (and far too little read these days) Southern journalist and thinker Gerald White Johnson once wrote. "For the past that influences our lives does not consist of what actually happened, but of what men believe happened."

On August 17, Carolyn Goodman died. She was 91, the mother of 20-year-old Andrew Goodman, one of three young civil rights workers -- Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Cheney -- murdered in Mississippi in 1964 during the Freedom Summer voter registration drive.

I met her in 1979. Colleagues and I had just finished a documentary about Charlayne Hunter-Gault, returning with her to the University of Georgia, which she and Hamilton Holmes integrated in 1961. Now, as a sort of sequel, Dr. Goodman suggested that we do a film about the deaths of her son and the two other young men. She was a woman of enormous intelligence, poise and elegance, and very persuasive.

We traveled to Mississippi to attend a 15-year-reunion of the Freedom Summer workers. Leaving the Jackson airport I noticed that license plates apparently still were optional in the state, all the easier for a dusty pick-up truck to follow the unsuspecting to somewhere dark and deserted.

At the reunion, we were startled at how many different interpretations there were of the events of Freedom Summer, how despite time's passing, deep wounds remained and festered. I saw veteran activists literally chase New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis from a room because he offered a mild defense of the Kennedy administration's civil rights record.

Funds were insufficient so we never made the film. But Carolyn Goodman persevered, telling her son's story and fighting against injustice right up to her death. When, in her eighties, she was arrested during a protest after the fatal New York police shooting of Amidou Diallo in 1999, her husband's matter-of-fact response was, "Well, that happens from time to time."

Two years ago, she testified against former Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Jay Killen, indicted for the murders of Goodman, Schwerner and Cheney (he was found guilty of manslaughter). Just last Friday, a federal judge sentenced another former Klan member, James Seale, to three life sentences for the murders of two black teenagers in Mississippi, also in 1964. Their bodies were uncovered during the search for Goodman's son and his companions. According to the New York Times, "At a press conference after the sentencing, Assistant Attorney General Wan J. Kim said that some 100 cold cases from the civil rights era were awaiting investigation and possible prosecution, including 30 in Mississippi."

In case you thought such ghosts of the past were no longer relevant, reflect on the immigration debate and its heavy-handed racial subtext. Or conjure with this, an excerpt from Rush Limbaugh's radio show just last week:

LIMBAUGH: [The Democrats] want to get us out of Iraq, but they can't wait to get us into Darfur.

CALLER: Right.

LIMBAUGH: There are two reasons. What color is the skin of the people in Darfur?

CALLER: Uh, yeah.

LIMBAUGH: It's black. And who do the Democrats really need to keep voting for them? If they lose a significant percentage of this voting bloc, they're in trouble.

CALLER: Yes. Yes. The black population.

LIMBAUGH: Right. So you go into Darfur and you go into South Africa, you get rid of the white government there. You put sanctions on them. You stand behind Nelson Mandela -- who was bankrolled by communists for a time, had the support of certain communist leaders. You go to Ethiopia. You do the same thing.

Of course, when it comes to drawing historic, Sixties/Seventies parallels with our current miasma, the big enchilada is Vietnam. Last week, in his speech before the VFW, El Matador Bush tried using it to pull off a dazzling 180 reversal, a perfectly executed veronica, but came up short. The bull won.

While once this administration scorned any comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq as odious, suddenly they're scented with patchouli. That is, as long as they're framed in the context of the alleged cost of failure. The president declared, "One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps' and 'killing fields.'"

Except that, as stunned historians like military analyst Anthony Cordesman, rushed to say, "In basic historical terms the president misstated what happened in Vietnam." And what is happening in Iraq.

The Vietnam/Cambodia-like tragedy Bush predicts for Iraq if we withdraw has, in large part, already taken place, on our watch. Cordesman told the Chicago Tribune, "We are already talking about a country where the impact of our invasion has driven two million people out of the country, will likely drive out two million more, has reduced eight million people to dire poverty, has killed 100,000 people and wounded 100,000 people more. One sort of sits in awe at the lack of historical comparability."

In his play "The Devil's Disciple," George Bernard Shaw has another military man -- British General "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne -- say of the impending Battle of Saratoga, "History, sir, will tell lies, as usual."

But the worse lies come from those who willfully ignore or distort the truths the past presents us, who foolheartedly march us into an uncertain, unholy future and dare to call it progress.

Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.

© Copyright 2007 Messenger Post Newspapers

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do.

Share This Article

More in: