- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2001

If President Clinton is frustrated and saddened by the reality that he will leave the White House soon, he will find little comfort in the treatment he will receive from historians in the years to come. No, I'm not talking about the liberal historians one sees on the network and cable news programs who, like Rumpelstiltskin, can spin even the worst Clintonian straw into hopeful historical gold. These historians are university professors whose forum of students is small and whose books command an equally small audience.

Rather, I'm focusing on the writers of high school textbooks who are likely to give the Clinton years a critical treatment that will influence for years to come high school students, who are far more numerous than college attendees. Every state requires the teaching of American history in high school, some a full year, a few even more. And the textbooks for these American history classes must conform to the standards set by states, such as an emphasis on recent history. Unlike the old days, when high school students rarely got as far as World War I or the 1920s by year's end, today's standards minimize Colonial history (except for the Commonwealth of Virginia's, which saw its heyday in the 18th century) and focus instead on the 20th century, with the expectation that the textbook takes you, quite literally, to the present.

Two states are the bellwether states for textbook writers: Indiana and Texas. The Hoosier state is important because it is the first to purchase books in the six- to eight-year cycle of new book adoptions. It is also Middle America and expects history will inculcate values. If a textbook sells in Indiana, especially Indianapolis, it will sell in the rest of Middle America.

Texas is even more important. Thanks to a Texas legislator who years ago got the state to set aside textbook purchasing funds that are not only ample but guaranteed for the future, the Lone Star state is the largest text buyer. Unlike other big states California, New York or Florida that find textbook funds elusive and often used for other purposes Texas has the bucks to scrutinize texts and buy them. Its values standards are similar to Indiana's, but the number of students is so large that no publisher can afford to ignore the state. And because Texas adoptions are so large, publishers essentially use Texas standards for other states with similar intellectual mindsets, save for Far Western ones or those in New England or the Middle Atlantic area.

What is more, Texas adopts books mostly through committees of teachers in the counties, school districts or even individual schools. Sometimes parents sit on these committees. Members examine textbooks carefully to determine whether the coverage is satisfactory and whether interpretations rendered by the text writers are fair. For example, when I first promoted in Texas in 1992 the textbook I co-authored, I noted that most committees focused on several topics, one of which was the Vietnam War. What committees looked for was a balanced approach: critical, yes, but not so much so that the loss of so many lives was demeaned. This time around, the Texas committees will almost certainly scrutinize coverage of another controversial era, the Clinton years.

As for presidents in general, coverage is expected to be clear and brief, the latter because Texas and most other states don't want texts to be voluminous. Both the goals of clarity and brevity won't serve Bill Clinton well. The reason is that, unlike other presidents with scandals relating to their personal mores, Mr. Clinton's can't be ignored. That can be, and is done, for Warren Harding and John Kennedy because their indiscretions were revealed subsequent to their terms in office. The Monica Lewinsky affair for Mr. Clinton, on the other hand, led to his impeachment and because the encounter was indelicate, complicated and prolonged, coverage that should be devoted to Mr. Clinton's accomplishments must, of necessity, yield to the impeachment story. Because only two presidents were impeached, Mr. Clinton is certain to be recalled by students as one in that not-so-prestigious duo.

To be sure, it is a quirk of history that Indiana and Texas rather than states such as California and New York that are more sympathetic to Clinton foibles are the pacesetters for the nation's textbook trends. But if the recent election has taught us anything, it is that states, large and small, sometimes have an uncanny way of affecting our national history.

Thomas V. DiBacco, co-author of "History of the United States," a high school text, is professor emeritus at American University and lives in Palm Beach, Fla.


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