The First Draft of History

Harry Welty

I stopped in a used bookstore in Bullhead City, Arizona, last week and found about 25,000 mostly paperback books. I asked for the nonfiction section and was directed to four shelves containing perhaps 100 books. If the lion’s share of romances, westerns and thrillers in that store reflect our psyches, perhaps it’s no wonder Donald Trump looked like a sure bet to a lot of voters. I removed 4 percent of the store’s history books at two bucks a pop and read half of one of one book, “Fierce Patriot,” on my overnight flights back to Duluth. 

I rely on histories to help me sort fact from fiction which leads me to Stephen Spielberg’s latest film, “The Post.” It gives Philip L. Graham, its former editor, credit for the quote describing newspapers as “… the first rough draft of history.” It was quoted reverentially and became the justification for his widow, Katherine Graham, risking jail when she published two decades worth of national security secrets purloined from the State Department by Daniel Ellsberg. Among their revelations was the CIA directed murder of Vietnam’s President, Ngo Dinh Diem, an American ally, on orders from the Kennedy’s. Fidel Castro, our enemy, was a lucky man, indeed. 

Slate Magazine ran a column by Jack Shafer who had a slightly more nuanced view of the quote, to wit:
“What makes ‘first rough draft of history’ so tuneful, at least to the ears of journalists? Well, it flatters them. Journalists hope that one day a historian will uncover their dusty work and celebrate their genius. But that almost never happens. Historians tend to view journalism as unreliable and tend to be dismissive of our work. They’d rather work from primary sources — official documents, photographs, interviews, and the like — rather than from our clips.”

I learned something else from Shafer.  Graham’s quote got its start from earlier authors. 
I’ve spent a lifetime reading history’s first drafts in a great many newspapers. Because I believe Graham’s words, I’m tough on the Duluth News Tribune. As they have blamed me for discord, I blame them for failing to investigate the Red Plan when it first reared its head. That the Tribune has clay feet should be no surprise. It is part of the power structure of the city of Duluth, a member of the Chamber of Commerce – the good old boys and girls club. When the Chamber and unions clamored for construction jobs and spiffy new schools, those of us who smelled a rat got short shrift in the pages of our “paper of record.”

Spielberg’s film makes it clear that this was equally true of the Post. It pointed out that even Philip Graham was swept up by President Kennedy’s charisma and helped preserve their friendship by going easy on his administration. The nation is fortunate that Katharine Graham, who deeply valued Washington’s high society, was willing to be more of a muckraker than her husband had been.

Politicians and journalists have been handcuffed together for a long time. After the Civil War, a great many small town papers proudly called themselves The [our town] Republican or The [our town] Democrat. A lot of people still think the papers are just biased. 
The reputations of politicians never recovered from the Vietnam Era. My own mother discouraged me from politics, despite her beloved father’s constant reelection to state-wide office over 24 years. Today, journalists share the same fate.
The “patriot” in the book I bought is William Tecumseh Sherman, General U.S. Grant’s right hand man. It’s a good thing “Uncle Billy” didn’t write our Constitution, because he hated reporters. 
If we can’t trust the first draft how about the subsequent drafts written by historians? 
Robert O’Connell, author of “Fierce Patriot,” has taken pains to scrutinize his subject’s warts. Among these was Sherman’s failure to give credit to the runaway slaves who greased the wheels for his army’s storied march through Georgia. Slaves were quick to warn of Confederate counterattacks. They led his men to enemy ammo dumps and were put to use as “pioneers,” building roads through swamps and tearing apart southern railroads. They were not always rewarded for their labors. One of Sherman’s subordinates, ironically named Jeff Davis, abandoned hundreds of slaves by cutting loose the bridge they had helped build leaving them to the mercy of pursuing Confederates. Many drowned in the swamp while others were killed or returned to their owners. The Press reported the outrage. Sherman never denied it.

We still have such men as the North’s Jeff Davis in America today, some in high offices. One of them shares Sherman’s disdain for the press and calls it “fake.” Time will tell if his children treat the histories to be written about him with the same contempt. Whatever is written, I hope my grandchildren read them.