Columnist David Shribman: Exposing questionable ‘truths’ about American myths

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The half-dozen versions of the final report of the committee examining the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, aren’t the only books that are making waves in the first weeks of the new year. A surprise entry — a look at the biggest legends in American history — is attracting unusual attention as well.

It bears the inviting title “Myth America,” and it is a work of investigation in its own right: 20 essays by prominent American historians looking at what Mark Twain would have called a series of narratives that Americans “know for sure that just ain’t so.”

The volume consists of a fandango of falsehoods that Americans have been dancing to for decades, maybe more. They include questions involving immigration, whether the New Deal or Great Society were failures, and the extent of voter fraud in American elections. In their introduction, the editors — two Princeton history professors, Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer — quote George Orwell’s notion that “who controls the past controls the future,” and they acknowledge that their compendium is, by necessity, not comprehensive.

So in the spirit of their effort, here are a few additional “truths” that bear reexamination:

• Congress is an expression of democratic values. Americans have had a crash course in Congress this month and a vivid glimpse of how the country’s legislative branch conducts business. Let’s concede the surface truth: The 535 members of Congress are elected by democratic means. And when they cast votes in the Senate and the House, the side with the most votes prevails, usually.

But from the moment they gather on Capitol Hill, the democratic principles are abandoned. There’s nothing democratic about seniority, beyond the notion that everyone has a chance to achieve legislative longevity. There’s little democratic about the way legislation reaches the floor; otherwise, the House Republican rebels wouldn’t have worked so hard to pack the Rules Committee. Indeed, there was nothing democratic about the ability of nearly two dozen members to hold the rest of the House, and its feckless new speaker, hostage. We will leave the question of representation in the Senate for another day, but suffice it to say that increasing numbers of people are less admiring in 2023 of the Great Compromise than Americans have been since 1787.

• One of the country’s glories is its voluntary income-tax system. It is true that income taxes are determined by the voluntary reporting of Americans’ income. But reporting income accurately, and paying taxes, is no more voluntary than stopping at a red light or registering for the draft. You have the right not to do any of those things. But there are sanctions for not doing them, and there are social costs for the country when people mistake the voluntary for the obligatory.

• The president is the world’s most powerful person. A hardy perennial since 1945, the evidence to refute this is enormous. Who was more powerful in 1956 after the Hungarian uprising, Nikita Khrushchev or Dwight Eisenhower? Who was more powerful in 1968 during the Prague Spring, Leonid Brezhnev or Lyndon B. Johnson? Who is more powerful today, Vladimir Putin or Joe Biden? The great presidential scholar Richard Neustadt taught that the American president didn’t have the power to direct, but instead had to wield the “power to persuade.” And that requires what Harry Truman conceded was the mere task of getting people “to do what they don’t want to do and like it.”

• The relentless Allied bombing of Germany hastened the end of World War II in Europe. This notion has been around for three-quarters of a century — almost as long as the proof to question, if not refute, it. Much of the evidence for both sides comes from the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, which found that bombing had several successes (hitting Nazi oil and communications facilities) but that there were substantial failures as well. Richard Overy, in his monumental 2021 book “Blood and Ruins,” argues that industrial output actually rose faster in cities that were bombed than in 14 cities left unscathed, explaining that the most rapid growth of German industrial production “occurred precisely in the years when heavy and persistent bombing had become possible.” This issue may never be resolved.

And my favorite, one that has haunted me since I was 10 and that many readers will find surprising:

• Barry Goldwater was wrong when he said, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” The juxtaposition of these two sentences — uttered at the San Francisco convention that delivered the 1964 GOP presidential nomination to the Arizona senator — trailed Goldwater for decades.

The reason: The prominent appearance of the word “extremism” in a positive light and the use of the word “moderation” in a negative light clearly affirmed the perception, popular among Democrats and Goldwater’s moderate foes, including New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, that the party’s leader was an extremist. At the time, his views — skepticism about the United Nations and Social Security, a hardline approach to the Soviet Union and Cuba — were more strident than Rockefeller’s, and the candidate’s vow that he was a “choice, not an echo” (the phrase came from Phyllis Schlafly) gave fuel to the notion he was out of the mainstream.

But being out of the mainstream did not render those two sentences un-American. Forgotten today is that Goldwater swiftly issued a statement saying, “If I were to paraphrase the two sentences in question in the context in which I uttered them, I would do it by saying that whole-hearted devotion to liberty is unassailable and that half-hearted devotion to justice is indefensible.”

Then an unlikely figure rode to Goldwater’s rescue. It was the old warhorse, Richard Nixon, who galloped to the fore. “The charge has been made that in using these phrases you were, in effect, approving political recklessness and unlawful activity in achieving the goals of freedom and justice,” he wrote in a public letter to Goldwater. “When the two statements in question are read in the full context of your speech, I feel certain this interpretation of your remarks is unwarranted — particularly in the light of your long and consistent public record of dedication to the highest principles of law and morality.”