Look (and Be) Smart by Doing Smart: The Power of Good Sources

This morning I checked out The Corner at National Review Online and found a post by John Fund titled Setting the Record Straight on Jim Crow. Fund is an experienced and well-respected political journalist, who, by the way, leans to the Right. In Setting the Record Straight, Fund links to and essentially summarizes a 41-page booklet on the Jim Crow South published by the American Civil Rights Union, an organization he characterizes as “a conservative group” led by form attorney general Ed Meese and former Ohio secretary of state Ken Blackwell.

In short, both Fund’s piece and the ACRU’s booklet claim that the Jim Crow South was a horrible place, blacks there–and elsewhere–suffered horrible atrocities, and the Democrats were in charge and obstructed Republican efforts to bring about changes through various civil rights bills. The bills either never got out of Congress or were not signed by whatever Democrat held the presidency at the time.

Now, I have little problem with that narrative. I am no expert on the post-Civil War South up through 1964, but I have read quite a bit about it, and Fund’s and the ACRU’s essential narrative holds true based on what I’ve read. I’m confident some on the left will disagree. That’s fine. I’m not here to debate the finer points of the history of civil rights. No, I want to pick a bone with the ACRU’s booklet. Let’s begin (and end) with the 72 footnotes or sources the booklet relies on to back up its version of that history.

First, I must admit I haven’t checked most of the sources the ACRU cites. Instead, I want to focus on just one of them, the last one, number 72, the source for the LBJ quote on page 34 of the booklet:

I’ll have those niggers voting Democratic Party for the next 200 years.

That’s an explosive quote with an ugly word, supposedly from the mouth of a president of the United States no less. The quote begs for good sourcing. And what do we get?

Ronald Rohlfing, citing Ronald Kessler, “Inside the White House” (http://www. canadafreepress.com/index.php/article/40889)

Hells Bells! This source is twice removed from the actual source, Robert M. MacMillan, a former steward on Air Force One, at least according to Kessler, whose book Inside the White House was not well received by some critics. Could the quote be accurate? Could LBJ have said something so scurrilous? Certainly, if you believe Robert Caro, the Pulitzer Prize winning biographer of LBJ. Caro’s four (soon to be five) volume work on the late president is full of stories that will open your eyes to what a vulgar, ruthless man LBJ could be (to be fair, he was also a hard-working friend of the poor–in other words a complex man).  But did he really say THAT?

A word search of Caro’s books on Amazon didn’t turn up that quote. A Google search of reviews of Kessler’s book returned many people disputing the story. Had the ACRU done just the minimal search that I just did, they would have discovered that. Instead, they decided to end their booklet with that disturbing quote based not even on the second-hand source who actually quoted MacMillan. Instead, they quoted a third-hand source, some obscure blogger on an obscure Web site. That is shoddy scholarship, scholarship that unnecessarily casts the rest of the booklet in a bad light, scholarship not worthy of a college freshman. Why?

And that’s not all, at least 8 of the 72 footnotes for the piece are to Web sites or authors whose business is conservative polemics. Ann Coulter, James Taranto, FreeRepublic.com, and the like. Do these people tell the truth? Yes, quite often. I particularly enjoy reading Taranto. But they are not strong sources unless you’re preaching to the Republican choir, and they are easy targets for those whose primary business it is to shoot the messenger, so nobody pays attention to the message–even when it’s accurate.  Don’t believe me? Google the LBJ quote and watch the left attack Mr. Kessler.

As if to make the point I’m trying to make above, Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute posted a video today about a Verizon ad that has gone viral. Watch it below and see if she doesn’t say essentially the same thing I just said, but on another subject. You might also find Ann Althouse’s take on the video/controversy interesting. In fact, why not watch the two videos–the Verizon one and Sommers’s response–on Althouse’s Web site, one following immediately after the first one. Enjoy.

Update: In the course of doing some work on my blog and Website, I watched the following YouTube video again and discovered that instead of just one video, the YouTube link leads to an ever increasing number of videos by Christine Hoff Sommers–aka the Factual Feminist. Thus, I thought it wise to point out that though I find her interesting and informative, I neither posted the link as an advertisement for her YouTube channel, nor should you assume that I endorse everything she says. (Given that the number of videos appears to increase almost daily, that would be stupid.) I do endorse her overall message, however: check your facts, not your privilege.