Jewish World Review May 6, 2002 / 24 Iyar, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Politics vs. history (history ain't got a chance) | There he goes again. By now George W. Bush has probably tied the English language into almost as many knots as Chicago's Mayor Daley the First. ("The policeman isn't there to create disorder. The policeman is there to preserve disorder!") Bushisms now abound the way Daleyisms used to. When it comes to George W. Bush vs. the English language, the language doesn't stand any more chance than Dan Quayle in a spelling contest.

But this president's way with the language, like a bear's with a beehive, is only the beginning of this president's triumphs over the liberal arts. Lest you misunderestimate the man, to borrow a Bushism, now his administration is taking on history, too.

The keepers of the official memory at the White House have started to chisel away at White House transcripts, correcting a phrase here, erasing a stutter there, to make the president's language more respectable. That's the way the corruption of history always starts -- with the little things.

Just ask any newspaperman who's ever been tempted to clean up a politico's language. He tells himself he's just going to make it clearer, or at least grammatical. Sometimes we just want to avoid having to use ellipses or a long, unreadable phrase in brackets that we know will only get in the reader's way and break up the flow of our own, oh-so-beautiful prose.

But the firm answer to all such temptations remains the unalterable one I was taught at the University of Missouri's J-School some time in the Middle Ages: No. No! NO! For when that little voice whispers, "It's only a word ," you can be sure you're hearing from the Old Gentleman with the forked tail. For that way lies the slippery slope to perdition, one little slip after another, and every one of them taken with the best of intentions.

The other evening, I heard an estimable lady accept a prestigious and much deserved award. The honoree quoted Edmund Burke, than whom there are few better sages to quote. "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil," she warned, "is for good people to do nothing."

That's when the alarm bell should have rung, and it did in the mind of at least one old Burkean present. What the sage of Beaconsfield had actually said was: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Men, not people. The lady's was only a small obeisance to the very contemporary gods of political correctness, made no doubt with the best of intentions. And who can blame her? Did she really want to risk being taken to task for the capital offense of male chauvinism? It gets so tiresome, explaining that every reference to men need not -- indeed, should not -- exclude women. (Just remember: Men embrace women.)

It was so much simpler just to change one little ol' word. Nobody would notice. Well, almost nobody. Who knows, maybe the lady's source had already corrupted the quotation for her before she saw it. You see all kinds of historical quotes bowdlerized these days.

Why go to all the trouble of preserving the quotation exactly? It's only a word. But change just a word, a phrase, a thought here and there, and it won't be long before somebody else feels free to change your prose, your words, your fact, your truth to fit his own ideological fancies.

Somebody needs to warn the official keepers of this administration's memory that it's not nice to fool with History, which has a way of biting back at those tempted to trim its edges.

At the moment, the word-trimmers in the Bush administration are only trying to clean up the official transcript, and maybe white-out an embarrassing line or two.

Remember when Ari Fleischer, the president's not always artful spokesman, sounded as if he'd joined the Thought Police? In the aftermath of Sept. 11, he warned that Americans "need to watch what they say ." But you won't find that quote in the official White House transcript. Those threatening words have been edited out. The way Winston Smith used to drop things down the memory hole at the Ministry of Truth in "1984."

Some societies long ago mastered the art of doctoring history, changing whole speeches and editing embarrassing presences out of photocopies. See the late (not so) "Great Soviet Encyclopedia," that compendium of historical fictions.

They say it can't happen here. One way to make sure it doesn't is to fight for every word.

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