How We Got Here

This is from James Loewen‘s book Lies My Teacher Told Me, a survey of what the most widely-used high school textbooks on American history leave out. It was published in 1995:

The sole piece of criminal government activity that most textbooks treat is the series of related scandals called Watergate…In telling of Watergate, textbooks blame Richard Nixon, as they should. But they go no deeper. Faced with this undeniable instance of government wrongdoing, they manage to retain their uniformly rosy view of the government. In the representative words of The United States—A History of the Republic, “Although the Watergate crisis was a shock to the nation, it demonstrated the strength of the federal system of checks and balances. Congress and the Supreme Court had successfully check the power of the President when he appeared to be abusing that power.”

As Richard Rubenstein pointed out, “the problem will not go away with the departure of Richard Nixon,” because it is structural, stemming from the vastly increased powers of the federal executive bureaucracy. Indeed, in some ways the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan-Bush administration, a web of secret legal and illegal acts involving the president, vice-president, cabinet members, special operatives such as Oliver North, and government officials in Israel, Iran, Brunei and elsewhere, shows an executive branch more out of control than Nixon’s. Textbooks’ failure to put Watergate into this perspective is part of their authors’ apparent program to whitewash the federal government so that schoolchildren will respect it. Since the structural problem in the government has not gone away, it is likely that students will again, in their adult lives, face an out-of-control federal executive pursuing criminal foreign and domestic policies. To the extent that their understanding of the government comes from their American history courses, students will be shocked by these events and unprepared to think about them.

Wow, did he get that one wrong.