The treatment of Nikolai Bukharin in successive editions of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia is instructive. In the first edition, published in 1927, he was described as "an outstanding theoretician of communism, an economist and a sociologist." By the second edition, there was no entry for Bukharin, Nikolai. There was no longer any such person, never had been.
Why these painstaking measures to erase any evidence of Comrade Bukharin and his like? Because the very existence of such people, let alone what they said or did or thought, might give others ideas. And in a totalitarian state, only the omniscient Party is allowed to have ideas. And official history must contain nothing to the contrary. In the not so fictional "1984," poor Winston Smith spends his days rewriting history at the Ministry of Truth to make it confirm to the party line. Why? Because history matters. Greatly. As it's explained to him, "He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past."
What happens when history isn't controlled? People may realize the Party isn't what it says it is, and Big Brother -- or in North Korea's case, Outstanding Leader -- may not be all-knowing and all-powerful after all.
All it may take to sow such subversive thoughts is one little detail somebody forget to omit from the official record, one photograph somebody neglected to throw down the memory hole. Which is how Winston Smith got into trouble. He happened to come across a picture of three purged party leaders attending a parry function when they were supposed to have been elsewhere plotting treason. Before he could consign it to oblivion, well-trained party man that he was, the photograph had stuck in his memory. And a seed of doubt was planted. Uh oh. It was a fatal error that would come back to haunt him.
If you think these games with the past are safely confined to totalitarian societies, think again, It can happen here. Back in 1998, Arkansas' own Dale Bumpers delivered a valedictory address as he prepared to end a 24-year career in the U.S. Senate. It was an eloquent speech, as all of Mr. Bumpers' are. But this one may be remembered not for what that distinguished and now elder statesman said, but for what he didn't. It was something he said Harry Truman had once told him: "The only time this country ever gets into trouble is when there is some so-and-so in the White House lying to the American people. So, remember, always tell the truth." In his televised address, the senator called his conversation with that plain-spoken president one of the Defining Moments of his life. It just didn't define him when it proved inopportune. For it was edited out of the official record.
The quotation from the irrepressible Mr. Truman remains a jewel -- a diamond in the rough, just as Harry Truman was in his finest moments. But when I went to look it up in the official version of Dale Bumpers' speech in the Congressional Record, there it wasn't. For that was just before Dale Bumpers was to return from retirement to defend a presidential client and fellow Arkansan named Bill Clinton against a charge of perjury in a celebrated impeachment trial. To have left that quote in the record would have been bad timing, to say the least. So it disappeared. And, hesto presto, history was erased.
It would take another decade before Mr. Bumpers would halfway confess that omitting the quotation from the official record hadn't been the work of some anonymous aide, but that he himself had excised it. Conscience may sleep, and for the longest time, but it can stir back to life, too. Even after years.
The moral of this story: To blue-pencil history is to confuse what isn't important with what is. It's not the party line or the political fate of this or that public figure that matters so much, but the truth. Especially the historical truth. For without it, we are cast into the darkness without a glimmer of light, the kind of light only Clio, muse of history, can provide. We tamper with History at our peril, and our country's. Which is why purging the historical record should not be dismissed as just a harmless little rhetorical device. It is a grave offense. And a continuing danger to a free country. No matter who does it.