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Two Shots at History

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It was pleasant -- and frankly a little shocking -- to see The Washington Post editorialize over the weekend about the new film "Fair Game," which purports to be the true story of Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame. Noting that Plame has labeled the movie "accurate" and that Wilson had expressed the hope that the film would help people "who don't read" or have "short memories" to understand the period, the Post blasted them both. "'Fair Game' ... is full of distortions -- not to mention outright inventions ... Hollywood has a habit of making movies about historical events without regard for the truth; 'Fair Game' is just one more example."

Yes, yes, and again yes. The entire Plame episode, it bears recalling, was steeped in deceit from the start -- a great deal from Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, a huge dollop from the press and Democrats, an assist from prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, and a generous contribution from Richard Armitage and Colin Powell (both of whom knew the identity of the leaker before Fitzgerald began his investigation). As I wrote at the time of Scooter Libby's trial, "The man on trial did not do the leaking. The man who did the leaking is not on trial."

For Libby, the witch-hunt was a personal tragedy. Because his memory of conversations differed from some others', he was convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. Though his sentence was commuted, he lost the ability to practice his profession (law), paid a huge fine, and endured disgrace.

But for the country, it was a descent into dangerous demagogy. The entire case rested on a lie shopped around by the Wilsons and eagerly parroted by a press hoping to damage the Bush administration -- namely that Plame was outed as a covert CIA officer by the White House as retaliation for her husband's role in discrediting President Bush's claim that Iraq had sought to buy uranium from Niger.

To quote Mary McCarthy on Lillian Hellman, "every word was a lie including 'and' and 'the.'" The White House did not leak Plame's name or identity. It turns that the Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage (who opposed the Iraq War and thus had no motive to punish Wilson), was the leaker. And Wilson did not discredit the uranium story when he made his report to the State Department. In fact, his report tended more to support the claim than to refute it.

But Hollywood now enters the picture and catechizes the Wilsons' false history. Joe Wilson is right -- some people who don't read will be duly propagandized. Everyone knows that Hollywood is very liberal. But you'd have to be really cynical -- or well informed -- to know that Hollywood will peddle outright falsehoods and pass them off as history.

Liberals always get two shots at history -- one as events unfold, and another when playwrights, screenwriters, novelists, and other cultural arbiters recount events later. It's a crime against truth, but it happens every day.

In Washington, D.C., a new play opened recently. Titled "Every Tongue Confess," the play was described by The Root, a magazine for African-Americans, as "a moving response to an almost forgotten racial inferno of the mid-1990s, when hundreds of black churches in the South were mysteriously burned." The Washington Post review said that the play "tries through lyrical speeches, magical spirituality and densely interlocked subplots to locate the redemptive potential in a horrific set of circumstances: the serial burning of black churches in the Alabama of the mid-1990s."

It may be a great play. But the history is distorted. There was a ginned-up panic about black church burnings in the mid-1990s, but there actually was no epidemic, at least not until after President Clinton delivered a speech on the subject (which was followed by a rash of copycat crimes).

The press, salivating over the possibility of reaping civil rights glory, fanned the flames with headlines like "Flames of Hate: Racism Blamed in Shock Wave of Church Burnings" (New York Daily News) and "A Southern Plague Returns" (Associated Press). By the time a presidential task force issued its report showing that the overwhelming majority of the arsons (and more than half were of white churches) were the result of drunkenness, insurance fraud, burglary, and personal revenge, everyone had moved on. Of 64 arsons studied, only four turned out to have any racial motivation. Four are too many. But they aren't a "racial inferno."

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