Where you get your history does matter. It matters a lot. This was brought home to me about 20 years ago. A copy editor named Jeff was reviewing my story at a trade publication. He routinely told me that “Lyndon Johnson was part of the plot in assassinating President Kennedy.”
Really, I asked, how do you know that. “I just saw the movie JFK by Oliver Stone.” Oliver Stone, I told him, is a movie maker, not a historian. He was unconvinced. After all, “JFK” is incredible, riveting entertainment. I watched the long movie one night—I think it ran four hours plus—and couldn’t stop watching it. It was fascinating. It was exciting. It was well filmed and acted, but there was one other thing.
It was historical drivel.
It has generals in the Pentagon plotting Kennedy’s murder—-which general or generals? Stone wouldn’t specify—and it had Johnson also plotting to kill JFK so he could become president. Now, I am the last one to defend Johnson. He and Nixon, his successor, were the worst presidents of my lifetime (I’m 64.). I think Johnson needlessly took this country into the disastrous Vietnam War. Lyndon Johnson—or Lying Baines Johnson as I prefer to remember him—stole his way into the Senate in 1948 as proven in Robert Caro’s book, “Means of Ascent,” part of his superb series, “The Years of Lyndon Johnson. I could go on for pages and pages detailing the evil things that were done by this horrible man.
However, Lyndon Johnson, no one has been able to prove, was part of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Yet my friend Jeff the copy editor, who went on to a great career with a Big Six accounting firm, believed then—-but I hope doesn’t believe now—that Lying Baines Johnson helped kill Kennedy.
Popular entertainment—in this case an entertaining, but fatally flawed movie—can be quite convincing. Today, on Broadway, the play Hamilton plays to sold out audiences every night. What does Hamilton have to do with one of the founding fathers of the United States, America’s first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton? Very little. They are now trying to make out Hamilton—one of the most controversial men in early American history–to be a great champion of the people. Yet he considered average people “a great beast.” But, again, although the play is historical junk food, it is entertaining junk food. It goes down wonderfully. However, later you will be throwing up. Now another generation of Jeff’s will grow up convinced that they know all about Hamilton and his political opponent, Thomas Jefferson.
There’s a play of the Scopes monkey trial in the 1920s in Tennessee, “Inherit the Wind, which was later made into a movie. Again, it is highly entertaining. Again, it is historical junk food. One example: The event was not a great morality trial, but a staged media event designed to bring business into Dayton, Tennessee. Town leaders weren’t angry with Scopes, a local science teacher. They were grateful that he agreed to test a controversial law and seemingly bring the whole world to Dayton. They were so grateful, they agreed to fund Scope’s post-graduate schooling. Don’t look for any of this in the magnificent movie version of “Inherit the Wind.” Its stars are two of the greatest actors of all-time, Spencer Tracy and Frederick March (The latter is my favorite actor). They give great performances but one can’t get away from an unpleasant fact: The movie is historical junk.
Yet it’s o.k. to have some junk food once in a while with a few provisos. One limits one’s consumption, realizing too much junk food will kill you. So, too, with your history. Many, many historical plays and movies are ridiculous. They can lead to a lifetime of historical misunderstanding. If we could say that the average person who sees a historical movie follows up with reading some good books on a subject, then there would no harm. However, many people think historical learning has been completed when one leaves the theater.
Indeed, the problem is too many people will go through life like my friend Jeff. Remember, Hollywood and Broadway are dream factories. They are not places to find serious history.