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WHAT WE READ ON OUR SUMMER VACATION! Where were you when Hee Haw occurred? We recommend Rick Perlstein’s opus: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, JULY 24, 2008

WHAT WE READ ON OUR SUMMER VACATION: Principally, two things:

We studied this piece by Emily Bazelon from Sunday’s New York Times magazine. Question: Will low-income kids do better in school if they attend schools which are largely middle-class? If so, how much better? These questions are extremely important—unless we just want to preen and posture about our own moral goodness. But we felt that Bazelon, with the acquiescence of her editors, largely phoned in her findings and judgments.

In particular, what kinds of gains have low-income kids made in Wake County, North Carolina (Raleigh and environs), which assigns kids to school by social class, and in Louisville, which assigned kids by race for a number of years? In each case, Bazelon said the low-income kids achieved “striking” gains in schools which were middle-class. For reasons we’ll explore next week, the data don’t seem to say that to us—although, in the case of Wake County, it’s easy to see how a scribe might get tooken.

(According to the Times, Bazelon “is a senior editor at Slate who writes frequently about legal issues.” Anyone know why we ask our legal writers to review test data from schools?)

We also read Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, and we very strongly recommend it, although we have reservations about its length and its anecdotal, “perfect squelch” narrative style (example below). Good lord! It’s easy to forget how crazy Americans politics was from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. (Essentially, Perlstein starts with the Watts riots of August 1965.) Who would have remembered that Jane Fonda’s ride on that North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun coincided with George McGovern’s ill-fated selection of Thomas Eagleton as his VP nominee? (According to Perlstein, McGovern hadn’t vetted Eagleton properly—and Eagleton hadn’t told McGovern about his earlier bouts with “nervous exhaustion,” which had been quite serious.) During that period, liberals and lefties displayed endless skill at political bungling—a skill some modern liberals still seem to admire. The Eagleton mess would have been bad enough on its own. But there was Fonda to reinforce it!

Reading Nixonland, we occasionally tried to recall where we were at some particular time—and we wondered why the events described didn’t drive us all crazy. And then, of course, we remembered: They did! Especially if you lived through this era, we strongly recommend Perlstein’s book.

By the way: Where were you when Hee Haw debuted? (Can’t give a page reference—it’s not in the index.) We were taking the waters of Cape Cod, in the early summer of 1969. In 1998, we described this seminal moment as part of a cover story for the (inevitably, now-defunct) Capital Style magazine. In 1998, why would Capital Style have cared about that? Simple! We had made the discovery, with great delight, with a young man from the Nashville area—a man the press corps would spend 1999 and 2000 deriding as “a creature of Washington.”

Ah, the late 60s! We were thrilled to see Minnie Pearl on TV. You may remember it differently.

Pleasing anecdotalism: In the late 1940s, did UPI’s George Reedy “have the impression” that congressman Richard Nixon was such a “highly programmed man” that he “would even practice his inflection when he said, ‘Hello?’” Perlstein presents Reedy’s statement straight, as if it were a settled “observ[ation]” (page 22). But did Reedy really have that impression in real time? The quote comes from an interview Reedy gave Chris Matthews—in 1997, fifty years later, long after the Nixon narratives (the “easy takes”) had hardened into stone. Reedy’s recollection makes a pleasing, instantly recognizable story—but is it accurate? Did he really get that impression fifty years earlier, in the late 1940s? As a general matter, we would be extremely slow to bet the house on such claims.

This type of pleasing anecdotalism drives a great deal of modern pseudo-journalism. Given our exceptionally sensitive tastes, we found a lot of it in Perlstein’s book—a book we very strongly recommend.

Notes on the world of the two-year-old: Our two-year-old great niece was on the scene, reminding us of a potent fact: Two-year-old children love being read to. You can read them their Dora book twenty straight times. They’ll suggest that you read it again.

Every time you read them their book, they’re noticing something different. This is where literacy comes from. It’s how the brain stretches and grows.

As research makes clear, low-income children get read to less often. It’s one way low-income kids get “behind.” In theory, this could all be reversed, of course. We wonder how William Raspberry’s doing?

Postscript: When in New Hampshire, why not buy your Dora books at a fine indy book store? Like this one.