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King: Memories fail us, and so can our biases
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It was bound to happen sooner or later. After years of stressing the importance of facts and the need to verify sources, I blundered by relying on my own memory. In my Dec. 15 column about the war in Afghanistan I said that President Lyndon Johnson declared "victory" and brought the troops home. I was wrong.

Wrong president. Wrong declaration. Wrong decade, in fact.

Lyndon Johnson served in the mid ‘60s. Richard Nixon inherited the Vietnam War when he became president in ‘68. He championed "peace with honor" but was forced out of office after the Watergate break-in. It fell to his successor, Gerald Ford, to pronounce the war "finished" and evacuate the troops in 1975.

It’s all there on the Web if only I had looked it up, but I lived through those years. Surely I would remember. However, in the ‘60’s and ‘70s I was a young mother with small children and not very political. Dwight Eisenhower was commander in chief when I came of age. I had voted for him and never once questioned his "domino theory" which said that if the U.S. lost Vietnam, the rest of the Asia would fall.

Eisenhower was wrong.

I was mortified when faced with my own blunder, but when I mentioned it to a woman with a far better memory than mine, she said she, too, thought President Johnson started the withdrawal. Could it be because both Johnson and Ford assumed the presidency after one predecessor died in office and the other resigned? Were we simply confused, or was there another reason?

The point is memory can’t be trusted. It is too easily colored by time, personal feelings, and political leaning. There was a day when media outlets had fact-checkers, individuals whose sole job was to check facts and verify sources. Even then the opinion page was just that: opinion. Today a midsized paper like The Times simply does the best it can with the resources at hand, and its opinion page tends to reflect the bias of its local readers rather than the mood of Americans as a whole.

Individual bias can make even the best of us look foolish. Every year, Yale University publishes the most notable quotes of the year. The No. 1 quote for 2009 was an angry comment made in July at a Town Hall meeting in South Carolina: "Keep your government hands off my Medicare."

Surely if the speaker had stopped to think, he would have recalled that Medicare is actually a single-payer government sponsored health insurance program, but his anger and frustration were such that he made a fool of himself.

I understand people’s distrust of government. Presidents lie. Congress is on the take, and the judiciary is overburdened and generally suspect. But let’s give credit where it is due.

Medicare, signed into law by Johnson in 1965, has been very popular. Government laws keep our food and water safe. Environmental regulations have cleaned up our air. Our social programs, as imperfect as they may be, keep many children from going hungry.

Government is not the enemy. If you don’t like the way it works these days — I don’t — work to make it better. Lobby for term limits. Curb corporate power by reducing the amount of money Corporations can pour into congressional elections. Reconsider the election process its self. Do we really need the electoral college?

As for my Dec. 15 column, it doesn’t really matter who takes credit for bringing the troops home. Getting into a war is a lot easier then getting out. Wars are not won. Wars are lost. They stop when one side or the other, often both, have lost too many lives and too much treasure to continue the fight.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears every other Tuesday and on gainesvilletimes.com.

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