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California’s lawmakers meet tonight to try to resolve the worst budget crisis in the state’s history.  For more than six months, the majority Democrats and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have tried to win the support of three Republicans in each house of the Legislature, which they need for the constitutionally mandated two-thirds vote to approve the budget. As a result, the California budget has been held hostage for more than half a year by six members of the minority party.

Why is California the only state besides Rhode Island and Arkansas to require a supermajority to pass its budget? As Fred Silva explains in this excellent article in Western City magazine, the two-thirds requirement emerged out of a state funding crisis in the Depression.  After voters rejected an initiative authorizing an income and sales tax, public officials wrote a constitutional amendment that allowed the Legislature to raise taxes and, at the same time, established a tight spending limit for state government.  The amendment stipulated that the spending cap could be lifted by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.  In 1962, voters approved a new initiative that eliminated the spending cap but required a two-thirds vote for every budget.

The pressure on the Democrats to compromise on the proposed budget is tremendous.  As the crisis continues, state workers have taken a 10 percent pay cut, construction work has halted on aging bridges and crumbling roads, and schools and universities have laid off instructors and slashed their expenses.  The pressure on Republicans to compromise is nil. There are few competitive legislative districts in California.  This means that the Republicans have no incentive to compromise on spending or taxes; indeed, such a compromise could well doom their careers. Each day that passes without a budget helps to “starve the beast,” which serves their ideology and helps their political futures. (Ironically, though, as the San Francisco Chronicle points out, the Republican districts receive far more in state services than they pay in taxes.  What’s the matter with Fresno?)

As a result, we sit and await the Legislature’s vote on what nearly everyone agrees is a terrible budget, with tax increases for ordinary Californians but windfalls for multinational corporations; with the prospect of short-term revenue increases offset by the potential long-term disaster of a new, permanent spending cap.

The University of California will survive the crisis, in part because only about a third of its budget comes from the state.  But its incoming students will be forced to work more hours to pay for their “tuition-free” education (there’s still no tuition at the UC; only “fees”);  and they will come from increasingly impoverished, struggling schools.  Thus does the best public university system in the world – the democratic, meritocratic dream of the late Gov. Pat Brown, with his master plan for free higher education for every accomplished California child — continue its slide into mediocrity.

After writing a prompt for a paper based on one of Eric’s books, I decided to google it and found this.  You can buy a term paper on Murdering McKinley for $20.95 per page; rather steep, I thought, but then graduate-level papers are even more.  My prompt is quite different than the one offered by the site, but the company will write a paper to fit the assignment if necessary.  I wonder what Eric would charge.

Every quarter I refer at least one student to judicial affairs for this sort of thing.  But the plagiarism-industrial complex is getting so sophisticated that it’s harder and harder to outwit the cheaters.

Sixty years ago today, the House Un-American Activities Committee announced that Whittaker Chambers, a confessed former Soviet spy, had produced physical evidence of a ring of Communist spies in the New Deal. He had plucked this evidence — rolls of microfilmed documents — out of a hollowed-out pumpkin on his Maryland farm. (Chambers had actually hidden the papers in a dumbwaiter for a decade, and just moved them a few days earlier to the pumpkin, which allegedly he saw as a safer hiding spot.)

The Pumpkin Papers, as they were quickly dubbed, included documents in the handwriting of former State Department official Alger Hiss and former assistant Treasury Secretary Harry Dexter White.  Neither man was still in government at the time, and the documents were more than a decade old.  But they did indicate that a handful of New Deal bureaucrats had stolen information for Moscow.  In the minds of conservatives, they provided proof that the entire New Deal was actually a communist project.

The story of the papers, which became iconic to conservatives, provides the focal point of an annual dinner in Washington, D.C. for a group of a hundred or so aging Chambers fans.  Senators, former CIA directors, Richard Nixon, and even Kenneth Starr have attended.  Because this dinner delights Ari as a historian of memory, I provide below Bruce Craig’s description of it in his great book on White:

When chimes signal the appointed hour, the formally outfitted guests enter the cavernous ballroom, where, in the pitch darkness, flickering jack-o-lanterns adorn all the tables.   At every place setting is a paperback copy of the cognoscenti’s most sacred text: Whittaker Chambers’s Witness.

Before taking our seats all eyes are on the head table, specifically, on the largest jack-o-lantern of all but one that is unlit.  In reverent silence, all watch as a senior member of the group ceremoniously extracts three rolls of 35-mm film from the cavity of the jack-o-lantern, and, with deliberate flair, waves them unceremoniously over his head….

With the strike of the match the face of the traitorous Hiss is outlined in the intricately carved jack-o-lantern, and so begins the annual meeting of the little known and at one time secret institution of the ‘Pumpkin Papers Irregulars.’

Then again, Ari’s love of this anecdote may be unrelated to his intellectual interests and instead a byproduct of his personal cosmology. (See also, here and here.)

On this day in 1986, President Ronald Reagan announced that rogues in the White House had secretly diverted money from arms-for-hostages trades with Iran to the CIA’s rebel army in Nicaragua.

Investigators for Attorney General Ed Meese found the so-called “diversion memo” in the offices of National Security staff member Lt. Col. Oliver North.  North had tried to destroy all evidence of the diversion, but his shredder had jammed.  When he came back the next day, he found investigators in his office.  After they left with the memo, he returned to shred some more.

As all devotees of the Iran-contra affair know, North had been running two secret operations out of the Reagan White House.  He had sold arms to the government of Iran as part of a scheme to win the freedom of American hostages in Lebanon; and he had taken this money, along with other funds, and given it to the contras fighting the communist government in Nicaragua.  Both operations broke American law, and the diversion of funds raised the specter of an executive branch violating – shredding? —  the Constitution.

As details of the two operations surfaced in the press, Meese started an “investigation” of the charges.  He was severely criticized for failing to secure North’s office at the outset.

The diversion of funds was considered the worst part of the Iran-contra affair.  Republican lawmakers like Senator Warren Rudman of New Hampshire said they would vote to impeach and remove the president from office if it could be proved that he knew specifically of the diversion.  No documentary evidence ever surfaced showing that he did.  Of course, few documents had survived North’s shredding party.

As the details of the scandal came to light, Reagan’s approval rating went into free fall and Americans’ faith in their government dipped to Watergate-era levels. Skeptics found it difficult to decide which part of Iran-contra scared them the most: the government-within-a-government, the contempt for democracy, or the bald-faced hypocrisy of a tough-talking administration willing to sell arms to the ayatollah and his terrorists. For many Americans, though, the scandal had one clear message: government officials routinely lied and broke the law.

On this day in 1963, Jack Ruby shot accused presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald on live television, thus providing material for thousands of conspiracy theory books (including mine).

Ruby, the owner of a strip club in Dallas, said he was distraught by the tragedy of the John F. Kennedy assassination, and especially by its effect on Jacqueline Kennedy.  He had visited the Dallas police station a couple of times during the 48 hours since Kennedy had been shot, milling around with reporters.  On November 24, he wandered into the city jail basement just moments before the police moved Oswald to the county jail.  As the prisoner moved past, Ruby lunged forward and shot him in the stomach:

Ruby’s murder of the man who had earlier shouted “I’m a patsy” caused millions to suspect a wider plot.   Although the government’s official report on the assassination dampened speculation for a time, by the mid-1970s upwards of 90 percent of Americans believed in a conspiracy.  The list of potential villains includes the Soviets, the CIA, the FBI, the secret service, the military-industrial complex, the mafia, Fidel Castro, anti-Castro Cubans, the Masons, the Jews, the Federal Reserve bank, aliens, J. Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, and Aristotle Onassis.

Ruby (born Jacob Rubenstein) had his own conspiracy theory: that anti-Semites would falsely accuse him of Kennedy’s murder and use his alleged guilt to justify a new holocaust. He told the Warren Commission that they had already begun their work and were torturing and killing Jews in Dallas.  He died of cancer in 1967.

On this day in 1969, the nation learned that the U.S. Army was investigating accusations that Lieutenant William Calley had murdered at least 109 Vietnamese civilians in March 1968.  The Army called the location of the massacre “Pinkville.”  The Vietnamese knew it as My Lai.

The soldiers of Charlie Company had charged into the hamlet looking for Viet Cong.  They found only civilians.  “It was just like any other Vietnamese village—old Papa-san, women and kids,” said one witness. “As a matter of fact, I don’t remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive.”

Despite the absence of enemy soldiers or weapons, the soldiers began a frenzy of killing.  They set fire to huts and then shot the residents as they ran out; they herded the villagers into groups and machine-gunned them; they tossed grenades at the people who tried to hide in ditches.  The soldiers believed that they were taking revenge for the buddies they’d lost.  In that environment, they believed, it was impossible to tell friend from foe.  “And you know,” said another soldier, “if you can shoot artillery and bombs in there every night, how can the people in there be worth so much?”

The numbers are disputed, but the Vietnamese said that 567 people were killed that day.  The only U.S. casualty was a soldier who shot himself in the foot so he would not have to participate in the killing.

Though the Army tried to cover up the My Lai massacre, the word began to spread.  A young GI, Ron Ridenhour, who was not present at the massacre but heard about it later, began to write letters to public officials.  Eventually, two congressmen forced the Army to investigate.

The American public learned of the Army investigation thanks to the efforts of a free-lance reporter named Seymour M. Hersh, whose stories were distributed by a tiny outfit called the Dispatch News Service.  The story of Hersh’s reporting on My Lai is legendary among journalists.  Tipped off by sources, and funded by a small grant from a foundation, he spent days working the phone, and finally learned Calley’s name and the number of deaths.  Then he flew down to Fort Benning, Georgia, to try to find Calley.  He cajoled, bullied, and sneaked past various soldiers and Army officers in an effort to talk to the man at the center of the case.  In the course of a day, he knocked on hundreds of doors, downed many scotches and beers as he chatted up Calley’s fellow soldiers, and persuaded one soldier to steal Calley’s personnel file.  When he finally found the lieutenant himself, near midnight, Hersh convinced him to sit down, have some beers, and talk till dawn.

Hersh knew immediately what he had.  “If somebody would have said to me then: ‘What’s going to happen?’ I would have said: ‘I’m going to go work on this a little more and write the most incredible story that’s going to win me the Pulitzer Prize.  It’s going to be an incredible story.  The best story of anybody’s life.’  Okay?  I just knew it.”

He did work on it a little more, found more witnesses and participants, located a distributor (he knew that most newspapers and magazines wouldn’t touch it), and wrote an incredible series of stories that won him the Pulitzer Prize.  And he went on to spend a lifetime writing other incredible stories: CIA domestic spying; the secret bombing of Cambodia; the U.S. involvement in the overthrow of Salvador Allende.  And, oh yes, Abu Ghraib.

When I worked at a college newspaper in the 1980s, we all wanted to be Seymour Hersh.  Not Bob Woodward, who had gone all establishment, but Hersh. Now, the newspaper industry is in free fall, and many of those inspired by Hersh have left journalism.  But Hersh himself, now past 70, is still making those phone calls, knocking on those doors, and persuading his sources that the American people deserve to know the truth.

On this day in October 1923, a committee in Stockholm met to consider giving the Nobel Prize in medicine to Frederick Banting, one of the discoverers of insulin.  The Nobel committee’s decision the next day to  honor both Banting and another researcher so infuriated Banting that he considered giving the prize back.  The fight between the prickly Banting and University of Toronto Physiology Professor John Macleod over the Nobel Prize was just one of the many strange and remarkable aspects of the discovery of insulin, a scientific breakthrough that saved the lives of millions of diabetics all over the world and helped usher in the modern era of medical research.

Banting, who would become the first Canadian to win the prize, and Macleod, a Scotsman, were jointly honored for the discovery of insulin the previous year. A struggling surgeon with no research experience, no doctorate, and little knowledge of the scientific literature in the field, Banting had approached Macleod, an eminent researcher, in the fall of 1921 with a seemingly quixotic idea for treating diabetes.  In those days, diabetes was often a fatal illness, especially for children who suffered from the more severe form of the disease (now called Type 1).  Type 1 diabetes usually begins when the sufferer’s own immune system, for  reasons still unknown, destroys the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas, which makes it impossible for diabetics to get the energy from their food.

Banting proposed an innovative research project: to take out dogs’ pancreases to make them diabetic, prepare a serum from the removed organs, and then inject the serum back into the dogs.  If it worked, then he would try the elixir of mashed animal pancreas in humans.  Macleod, who initially was appalled by Banting’s ignorance of previous scientific work on diabetes, nevertheless was intrigued enough to give Banting a filthy, unused laboratory, a small budget to buy dogs, and a medical student to assist him.  Though Banting proved to be a careless researcher, he did succeed in producing an elixir — a “mysterious something” — that dramatically reduced the blood sugar in diabetic dogs.

Once the experiments worked, Professor Macleod took an active interest and began to refine and promote Dr. Banting’s work (and, in Banting’s view, steal credit from the real discoverer of insulin).  A biochemist at the University of Toronto detoxified Banting’s serum, and the researchers tested it in humans beginning in 1922.  The results were dramatic.  Before the discovery of insulin, many diabetics starved to death. Once they received Banting’s serum, children sat up and began eating, walking, laughing, and living.  It was a miracle; it was, the newspapers said, the greatest advance in medicine in decades.  The before and after pictures can make you cry:

The discovery helped to elevate the reputation of medicine in the western world.  Before about 1910, if you were sick, you were better off avoiding doctors than consulting one.  By the 1920s, western medicine was beginning to help more people than it hurt; and insulin was one of the most dramatic examples of how modern scientists could become like gods.  In 1921, thousands of diabetic children in the US and Canada were slowly wasting away; in 1923, thanks to Banting’s potion, they rose from their deathbeds to lead normal, active lives. The experiments also invigorated the anti-vivisectionist movement, as many dogs died in the course of the quest. (The mass producers of insulin shifted to using pigs, whose pancreases were more readily available and whose sacrifice did not excite the same sort of public hostility.)

Yet though the discovery of insulin marked a watershed in the history of medicine, it still took place in a scientific world that seems very distant from us today.  Unlike the scientific discoveries of later years — the atomic bomb, say, or the structure of DNA, or the polio vaccine — insulin was not the product of big science, with well-funded teams of scientists in gleaming laboratories around the world racing each other to a world-changing goal.  It was one doctor and his research assistant, mashing up dog pancreases and straining them through a filter.

One might imagine that Banting would be thrilled to receive the Nobel Prize, the ultimate validation of his work.  But one would be wrong. He might not have a Ph.D., but he did have the temperament of an academic: he reacted with complete, unalloyed fury that he had to share the prize.  In his words:

I rushed out and drove as fast as possible to the laboratory.  I was going to tell Macleod what I thought of him.  When I arrived at the building Fitzgerald [a colleague] was on the steps.  He came to meet me and knowing I was furious he took me by the arm.  I told him that I would not accept the Prize….  I defied Fitzgerald to name one idea in the whole research from beginning to end that had originated in Macleod’s brain – or to name one experiment that he had done with his own hands.*

A witness said Banting was so furious “he could have torn the whole building down.”

Eventually, Banting relented and agreed to accept the prize.  There was his country to consider – “what would the people of Canada think if the first Canadian to receive this honour were to turn it down?”  And there was the reputation of science.

Macleod seems to have regarded Banting as something of a dilettante who happened to get lucky once, and Banting’s future career did nothing to change his mind. Canada’s most honored scientist enjoyed munificent funding from a grateful government, but never produced another significant discovery before he died in a plane crash in 1941.  For the children and adults whose lives were saved by Banting’s miracle elixir, though, that one discovery was more than enough.

*For more, see Michael Bliss, The Discovery of Insulin.

On this day in 1941, the Senate approved a $6 billion supplemental Lend-lease bill, thus bringing the United States closer to joining the war that was consuming the rest of the world.

The original Lend-Lease Act, passed in March 1941, gave President Franklin Roosevelt the power to lend, lease, or otherwise dispose of food, ammunition, and arms to any country he deemed essential to the defense of the United States.  By the fall of 1941, those nations included the Soviet Union and China as well as Great Britain.  By the end of the war, the US would give more than $49 billion to more than 40 nations under Lend-Lease.

Many members of Congress had predicted dire consequences if Lend-Lease became law; indeed, the debate shows elements of what Richard Hofstadter famously called the paranoid style. Despite Roosevelt’s insistence that the law would help the country avoid war, the anti-interventionists knew that Lend-Lease signaled a turning point in U.S. foreign policy, and they put up a tremendous fight against it. They repeatedly invoked the “lessons of history” taught by World War I revisionists. Senator Burton Wheeler, the leader of congressional forces against Lend-Lease, used arguments similar to those George Norris had made in 1917. The “interests” were once again foisting “one war measure after another on you, a peace-loving and unsuspecting people,” he told Congress. The people should respond by refusing to play the game of the Morgans and the Rockefellers. “Remember,” Wheeler told his supporters, “the interventionists control the money bags, but you control the votes.”

The anti-interventionists also stressed the dangers of a leviathan government in wartime, particularly the dangers of an imperial presidency. The peril to the republic, national hero Charles Lindbergh testified to a congressional committee, “lies not in an invasion from abroad. I believe it lies here at home in our own midst.” Senator Gerald Nye decried Congress’s willingness to surrender its constitutional purview to a “power-hungry executive” and reduce itself “to the impotence of another Reichstag.” If Congress was another Reichstag, then Roosevelt, by extension, must be another Hitler. Leaders of the anti-interventionist organization America First maintained that the New Deal’s centralizing bureaucrats wanted, as Senator Wheeler said, to “establish fascism in the United States.” In his opponents’ eyes, the very act of opposing Hitler transformed Roosevelt into an American Hitler. (For more on views of Roosevelt as a dictator, see Ben Alpers’ marvelous book.)

When they insisted that neither side in the war had a righteous cause, the anti-interventionists downplayed Hitler’s brutal and increasingly genocidal policies against the Jews. Indeed, anti-Semitism was the elephant in the room that the more “responsible” anti-interventionists tried to ignore. Some, like journalist John T. Flynn, tried to keep the most vehement anti-Semites out of America First. They also tried to persuade prominent Jews to join the organization. But Lindbergh laid bare the anti-Semitic core of anti-interventionism when he gave a speech in Des Moines in September 1941 that identified the three forces leading the country to war: the Roosevelt administration, the British, and the Jews. Lindbergh singled out the Jews for special criticism: “Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our Government.”

Most newspapers and public officials condemned Lindbergh’s speech—Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican nominee for president, called it “the most un-American talk made in my time by any person of national reputation”—and Flynn and some America First leaders were distressed by it. But many anti-interventionists believed that Lindbergh had simply told the “truth,” that, as the lawyer Amos Pinchot explained, “as a group, the Jews of America are for intervention.” These anti-interventionists shared Lindbergh’s conviction that Americans would never willingly join a war against Germany; instead, they were being forced into it by selfish Brits, a lying executive, and Jewish warmongers. Though they insisted that these beliefs were not anti-Semitic, they ignored the long history of American anti-Semitism that lay behind Lindbergh’s accusation.

The anti-interventionists refused to see the differences between the First World War and the Second, between the British and the Nazis. They did, however, understand that the U.S. government was changing in immense—and, they believed, frightening—ways. Senator Robert Taft, the dean of anti-interventionist conservatives, argued that support for Britain would be the first step down a slippery slope to a national security state. “If we admit at all that we should take an active interest,” he said back in 1939, “we will be involved in perpetual war.” The United States would become more like European countries, with a powerful, centralized government launching wars around the globe. The increase in the coercive power of the government—to draft men, to commandeer resources, to suppress dissent—would imperil Americans’ historic independence and autonomy. It would, as Wheeler said, “slit the throat of the last Democracy still living.”

One other thing I probably should tell you, because if I don’t they will probably be saying this about me, too. We did get something, a gift, after the election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog, and, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore, saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was? It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate that he had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the six year old, named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it.

On this day in 1952, Richard Nixon gave the Checkers speech , a landmark in the history of television and politics.  Talking conversationally to the largest audience ever for a political speech, in the style that came to be called Nixonian, he defended himself from charges of corruption by attacking his critics.  In the process, he deftly transformed accusations of bribery into an attempt by nasty liberals to take away his children’s favorite pet.

Nixon saw the speech as a chance to save his spot on the Republican ticket that year.  After General Eisenhower picked the California senator as his running mate, the New York Post ran a story charging that Nixon supplemented his salary with a secret slush fund backed by wealthy businessmen:  SECRET RICH MEN’S TRUST FUND KEEPS NIXON IN STYLE FAR BEYOND HIS SALARY.  The fund was not illegal at the time, but later stories suggested that Senator Nixon might have done legislative favors for the men who contributed to the fund.  Nixon decided to present his side of the story on national television. Fifty-eight million people tuned in to watch.

To liberals, the speech was smarmy, unconvincing, condescending, and downright laughable at times.  There was the awkward reference to his wife’s clothes (“Pat doesn’t have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat, and I always tell her she would look good in anything”).  There was Pat herself, perched uncomfortably on a chair next to her husband, looking like she really wished she’d married her other boyfriend.  There was the false humility  (“I went to the South Pacific. I guess I’m entitled to a couple of battle stars. I got a couple of letters of commendation. But I was just there when the bombs were falling”).  And there was that corny part about the dog.

But, as David Greenberg has pointed out, conservatives heard and remembered the speech in a different way.  To them, Nixon was not Uriah Heep but Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith in Washington, a man of the people attacked by snooty liberals because he didn’t belong to their club.  Murray Chotiner, Nixon’s chief strategist from his earliest, nastiest, red-baiting campaigns, was thrilled by the speech.  “Never defend; always attack” was Chotiner’s motto, and Nixon followed his advice with enthusiasm.  After recounting his finances, Nixon went on the offensive.  His enemies would never forgive him for putting Alger Hiss in prison, so they invented these “smears” with one purpose: “to silence me, to make me let up.”  But Dick Nixon was “not a quitter.”  He planned to “campaign up and down America until we drive the crooks and the Communists and those that defend them out of Washington.”  He endured these slings and arrows for one reason: “Because, you see, I love my country. And I think my country is in danger.”  The Democrats weren’t just his enemies; they were the nation’s enemies.

Nixon would have the opportunity to insist “I have never been a quitter” again, in August 1974 as he announced that he was quitting.  The revelation of Tricky Dick’s crimes finally forced him from office, but the politics of division – of “positive polarization,” as Nixon liked to call it – continues to warp our politics today.  As Rick Perlstein says, we live in Nixonland.

All of us remember what happened on this day in 2001.  Or at least, most of us do.  My 12-year-old daughter, who has no memory of what we’ve come to call 9/11, has been asked by her junior high school to wear red, white, and blue today. Though her school is teaching her to “remember” this day in a prescribed, patriotic way, in fact one third of Americans remember 9/11 in a very different way.  They blame their own government for what happened that day.

Immediately after 9/11, some veteran conspiracy theorists began spinning familiar stories about the terror attacks. The Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke argued that agents of Israel had either carried out the attacks or “at the very least they had prior knowledge”; the John Birch Society blamed communists, the “global power elite,” and the forces of the New World Order.

These early theories came from the fringe, and stayed on the fringe, for most of 2001 and 2002. But then something caused broad segments of the American public to consider them.  And that something, in short, was the revelation of Bush administration lies about the war in Iraq.

First, there was former ambassador Joseph Wilson, explaining in the New York Times what he didn’t find in Africa.  The Bush administration, he charged, had “twisted” the intelligence on Iraq’s nuclear weapons program “to exaggerate the Iraqi threat.” Then there was former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, who, in his book, sworn testimony, and media appearances, portrayed an administration that willfully ignored its own intelligence experts. “On the issues that they cared about,” he wrote, “they already knew the answers, it was received wisdom.”

In the two years following Clarke’s testimony, other insiders came forward to charge that Bush administration officials, and especially the vice president, had “cherry-picked” intelligence to support their predetermined course for war. Paul Pillar, the CIA’s top officer for the Middle East from 2000 to 2005, went public with his argument that the administration had “misused” intelligence “to justify a decision already made.” More forcefully, Lawrence Wilkerson, who had been Colin Powell’s chief of staff, said that his former boss had been used by a “cabal” led by Cheney and Rumsfeld. Then there were the Downing Street Memos, which revealed that the head of the British secret service told Prime Minister Tony Blair in July 2002 that Bush was set on war and “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

In other words, administration officials intimidated and manipulated the intelligence community into supporting its deceptive case for war. This was a real conspiracy: a conspiracy to perpetrate a fraud on the American public by lying about the intelligence for war.

So, the 9/11 skeptics wondered, what else did they lie about? Could the Bush administration have planned the attacks itself? The Internet helped the alternative 9/11 theories to mutate and spread rapidly. My students began emailing me links to sites that “proved” a U.S. government conspiracy by citing real historical episodes: the Maine, the Lusitania, and, most often, Operation Northwoods, a crackpot scheme by the U.S. joint chiefs of staff at the height of the Cold War to fake attacks on Americans in order to provoke a war with Cuba.  Soon, even The View, a network TV talk show aimed at women, became an unlikely venue for propagating alternative 9/11 theories.  The premise of these theories was always the same: if we can prove that the government lied or conspired in one case, who’s to say they’re not responsible for other crimes and deceptions? “I have one thing to say,” said Rosie O’Donnell, after suggesting a possible government conspiracy involving British sailors in Iranian waters. “Gulf of Tonkin. Google it!”

The first national poll on alternative 9/11 conspiracy theories, conducted by Scripps Howard News Service in the summer of 2006, found that 36 percent of Americans believed that Bush administration officials either helped the terrorists or consciously took no action to stop them. Sixteen percent embraced the most extreme theory: that explosives, not airliners, brought down the towers. Moreover, a majority of Americans ages eighteen to twenty-nine believe these theories.  For them, recent U.S. history is full of historical precedents for their beliefs – precedents they can learn about instantly, with the click of a mouse, and then alert their friends.  Operation Northwoods, dude.  Google it.

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