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You CAN Make This Stuff Up

COMMENTARY | November 20, 2007

A Wall Street Journal editorial page column last week said George Wallace was shot dead while campaigning for President. A correction was issued soon enough, but John Branston, a Memphis writer and longtime WSJ reader, is mystified by the error.

By John Branston

It isn’t easy to put George Wallace, the Neshoba County Fair, and “why we are in Iraq” in the same column, but here goes.

I literally could not believe my eyes last week when I read in a column by Wall Street Journal deputy editor Daniel Henninger that George Wallace was “shot dead” while running for president in 1972.

As everyone apparently doesn’t know, the former governor of Alabama was shot and wounded in 1972 but lived until 1998. The gunshot paralyzed Wallace, and images of him in a wheelchair are icons of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s when he remained politically active and, in his later years, often apologized for his racist past.

It is a cardinal sin of journalism to point at someone else’s errors. I have made my own share, and will doubtless make another one very soon as cosmic punishment for writing this. But Henninger’s column, which is unfortunately titled “Wonder Land,” seems to me to explain, in a way, something about The Wall Street Journal editorial page and even why we are in Iraq.

The headline on the column is “1968: The Long Goodbye.” The thrust of it is familiar to regular readers of The Journal such as me: many of America’s problems can be traced back to the permissiveness of the 1960s. Along with denunciations of the Clintons and Mississippi tort lawyers, this is one of the touchstones of the editorial page.

The year 1968, when I was 19 years old and in college, was particularly traumatic: President Lyndon Johnson’s announcement that he would not seek reelection; the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; the violence outside the Democratic Party national convention in Chicago, to name a few.

Wallace got roughly 13 percent of the vote as a third-party candidate for president in 1968. Richard Nixon won. Wallace was indeed shot but not shot dead four years later when his political appeal was perhaps even stronger.

[Note: The error was corrected in the online version Friday and in the print edition of the newspaper on Saturday. An earlier version of this Nieman Watchdog article incorrectly stated that there had not been a correction in the print edition.]

How the error got in the column in the first place is as baffling as why. You would think that one of the greatest newspapers in the world would have copy editors for even the best opinion writers. It’s hard to think of an innocent explanation for “shot dead.” Maybe the copy desk did it. It isn’t very likely that Henninger meant to say “not shot dead” or “almost shot dead” or simply “shot” but wrote it as “shot dead.”

I guess if you believe the Sixties and the hippies ruined America, it makes a better story if George Wallace was not just shot but “shot dead” even if it is tantamount to saying the civil rights movement was never the same after King was “wounded” in Memphis in 1968.

It was my second “say what?” reaction to a national columnist in two weeks. David Brooks of The New York Times wrote that Ronald Reagan was not appealing to southern racists to bolster the Republican Party when he defended “states rights” at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1980.

Three civil rights workers were killed in Neshoba County in 1964. I covered the annual fair for UPI in 1980, and got a first-hand look at Cecil Price, the deputy who turned the young men over to their killers. Another mainstay of the event was racist former Mississippi governor Ross Barnett, who played and sang “Are You from Dixie?” Reagan knew perfectly well what he was doing.

So here’s my theory. Ideologues, left or right, sometimes blind themselves to facts that don’t fit their view of the world or make up new ones that fit it better. Here comes the great leap – you might say this is what the Bush administration and its mouthpiece, The Journal’s editorial page, did on the war in Iraq.

That’s enough. Like I said, my own howler of an error is probably right around the next corner. It won’t do any good to say I have been a faithful reader of The Journal for 30 years, always praise it extravagantly when I talk to would-be journalists, and admire its disdain for on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand commentary. My goose is cooked.

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