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Barbara O'Brien: Lynne Cheney's Ministry of Truth

Lynne Cheney's Ministry of Truth

By Barbara O'Brien

The Education Department this summer destroyed more than 300,000 copies of a booklet designed for parents to help their children learn history after the office of Vice President Dick Cheney's wife complained that it mentioned the National Standards for History, which she has long opposed. [Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Jean Merl, "Booklet that Upset Mrs. Cheney Is History," The Los Angeles Times, October 8, 2004]

I had to read this story twice to wrap my head around it. You'll remember that every time Hillary Clinton so much as hiccupped while her husband was president, the wingnuts would scream about power hunger and the "co-presidency." Yet the wife of a vice president can order 300,000 books burned, and hardly anyone notices.*

According to the LA Times, the 73-page booklet was a new edition of a 10-year-old how-to guide called "Helping Your Child Learn History." The booklet, published by the Department of Education, offered such controversial advice as taking children to museums and visiting historical sites.

Apparently Mrs. Cheney's only objection to the booklet was that it mentioned the National Standards for History, about which Mrs. Cheney has had a bug up her rectum for many years. Thus, 300,000 copies of a booklet already paid for by our tax dollars were trashed. A new version will be written and printed. Another drop in the Ocean of Deficit.**

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So what are the National Standards for History? And why do they upset Lynne Cheney so?

Originally released in 1994, the National Standards for History were written by teachers, administrators, scholars and parents, with help from organizations such as the American Association of School Librarians. Development of the standards was administered by the National Center for History in the Schools at the University of California, Los Angeles under the guidance of the National Council for History Standards. Funding was provided b the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education during the Bush I administration.

By some coincidence, Lynne Cheney was chairperson of the National Endowment of the Humanities during most of this time, from 1986 to 1993. Whatever role she played in the creation of the standards, if any, is not clear.

One week before the original standards were released, Cheney (who had resigned from the NEH by then) wrote a blistering op ed for the Wall Street Journal ("The End of History," October 20, 1994) accusing the standards of extremist revisionism.

Jon Weiner wrote in The New Republic:

Cheney said the issue was simple: not enough white men. Harriet Tubman, the African American who led slaves to freedom before the Civil War, was "mentioned six times," while George Washington "makes only a fleeting appearance," and Thomas Edison gets ignored altogether.

A few days after Cheney's article appeared, Rush Limbaugh had it on the air. Limbaugh yelled that the standards were the work of a secret group and should be "flushed down the toilet."

Thereafter, more respectable journalists began picking up the story. The New York Times ran an Associated Press article on October 26, the day the standards were officially released. (Headline: "plan to teach u.s. history is said to slight white males.") The story did not describe the standards or give examples. Instead, it reported on Cheney's laments: "They make it sound as if everything in America is wrong and grim." [History lesson. (Lynne V. Cheney's baseless attacks on the National Standards for History), The New Republic, 1/2/1995]

And, of course, the usual Echo Chamber crew -- e.g., Charles Krauthammer, the Washington Times, etc., along with the aforementioned Wall Street Journal and Limbaugh -- took up Cheney's claims and repeated them through every possible medium. The public became well conditioned to believe the standards were were "developed in the councils of the Bolshevik and Nazi Parties, and successfully deployed on the youth of the Third Reich and the Soviet Empire" [ Wall Street Journal, "The History Thieves," November 8, 1995].
For a spine-chilling archive of what "journalists" did to the standards, including Ms. Cheney's above-mentioned Wall Street Journal op ed, click here.

Naturally, Cheney's accusations were all lies. Jon Weiner got hold of the original standards and read them, and reported that white men were represented on every page.

Flip to page 76: for the revolution of 1776, "Analyze the character and roles of the military, political and diplomatic leaders who helped forge the American victory." If you don't discuss George Washington, you flunk. Page 138: for the period 1870-1900, "How did inventions change the way people lived and worked? Who were the great inventors of the period?" If you don't discuss Edison, you're in trouble.

What about Cheney's claim that "not a single one of the thirty-one standards mentions the Constitution"? Well, page 84 says students should be able to "analyze the fundamental ideas behind the distribution of powers and the system of checks and balances established by the Constitution." And, it turns out that the person mentioned most often is not Tubman, but Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan comes in second.

So what's Cheney's problem with the standards? Here's a clue from an educational journal:

Cheney charged that the standards were a loaded document whose "authors save their unqualified admiration for people, places, and events that are politically correct," and that the standards offered heavy doses of multiculturalism and obsession with such things as McCarthyism (19 references), racism (the Ku Klux Klan is mentioned 17 times), and mistreatment of indigenous peoples but give little attention to some of the core developments and figures of American history. [ National Standards for United States History: the storm of controversy continues. ]

Ooo, the evil of multiculturalism. We can't let children learn that not everything important in history was carried out by a white male elite (with an occasional assist from white females), can we?
But there's more to Cheney than old-fashioned racism. Jonathan Chait wrote in The American Prospect:

Scratch slightly below the surface of her polemics and you find the basic work of political coalition building. Her stories of innocents betrayed by the academic establishment usually reflect the fears of the Christian right. She takes this raw material, applies a sheen of respectable intellectual neoconservatism, and connects it to a larger ideological and legislative purpose. So we have the predicaments of Stacy and Joey and poor Mrs. McDaniel, followed by Cheney somberly pointing the finger at the usual liberal villains. [Jonathan Chait, "Lynne Cheney, Policy Assassin," The American Prospect vol. 10 no. 43, March 1, 1999 - April 1, 1999]

The authors of the National Standards for History said they were created to move students past passive absorption of dates and facts and toward the analysis of historical issues, i.e., critical thinking. (Thinking does make the righties nervous, doesn't it?) They were never meant to be a mandated curriculum. Instead, the scholars hoped (and still hope, I assume) that textbook publishers and school boards would voluntarily apply the standards as a guideline toward developing curriculum.

It is probably the case that the wingnuts could not understand that the standards were not the exhaustive list of everything kids should be taught about history. They'd skim through it counting the number of times George Washington's name came up, without noticing that a suggestion to discuss the leaders of the Revolution would necessarily include Washington.

Whatever. Lynne Cheney doesn't want you to know about the standards. Hence, the burning of 300,000 books that merely mentioned them.


While researching this article, I stumbled on this revealing factoid: In 1995, Mrs. Cheney and Senator Joe Lieberman co-founded the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). These days, ACTA is busily squashing campus dissent for the "war on terra." Aren't you glad we didn't nominate Joe?

Also, I stumbled across this article from 1997 about how House Republicans nixed a bill that would have applied national testing standards on American public schools. Isn't that what No Child Left Behind was about? And is that a flipflop?


*Note to righties: I mean "burning" figuratively, not literally; if in fact the booklets were shredded it's beside the point. [***] Also, although Mrs. Cheney says she did not order the booklets destroyed, according to the LA Times they were destroyed only because she wanted them destroyed.

** The new version, on the Department of Education web site, includes a plug for the President in the Foreword:

Through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, President George W. Bush has made clear his commitment to the goals of raising standards of achievement for all children and of providing all children with highly qualified teachers and with instruction that is based on scientific research. Helping Your Child Learn History is part of the president's efforts to provide families with the latest research and practical information that can help them to support their children's learning at home.


*** Righties tend to be rigidly linear thinkers, and you have to explain everything to them very carefully.


Author of the Mahablog Barbara O'Brien first appeared on Scoop in the runup to the 2002 mid-term elections. She returns today to comment on the 2004 Presidential campaign and its aftermath. Please visit her Mahablog for additional breaking news and views from the campaign trail.

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