Harley Rider Mitch Daniels Was Afraid of Howard Zinn

Daniels, now president of Purdue University, leaves the White House after a visit in 2012, when he was Indiana's governor Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Mitch Daniels was the numbers guy. New York Times columnist David Brooks called him a “serious, competent manager.” As governor during the recession, he improved Indiana’s bond rating to AAA, turning the state into what he calls “the peony in the parking lot.” As the head of George W. Bush’s Office of Management and Budget, Daniels set himself unspectacular goals of competence, such as reducing wait time at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles by three-quarters. Then he achieved them. Sure, he picked fights with teachers, but he also hired social services case workers to go after deadbeat dads. And he suggested in a 2011 profile by the Weekly Standard that the next president “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues” and focus on economics. Daniels is wildly popular in Indiana and rides a Harley. But he stands at only 5 feet, 7 inches, which means he can’t possibly ever be president of the United States, so after his second term in Indiana, he settled for president of Purdue University.

So an Eisenhower Republican, not a fire-eater. Which turns the e-mails released by the Associated Press on Wednesday from silly to baffling. Look at Daniels’s public record, and it’s hard to believe that he would have wasted time on something as petty as ridding state curricula of the works of Howard Zinn, a historian who focused on labor and economic unrest in America. But then there’s the document (PDF).  After Zinn died in February 2010, Daniels e-mailed Tony Bennett, his superintendent of public instruction, calling Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States a “truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.” That’s fine. Who among us hasn’t practiced a little amateur historiography among colleagues? And let’s assume for the sake of argument that Zinn’s focus on public dissent, such as the Whiskey Rebellion and turn-of-the-century coal strikes, is both execrable and anti-factual. And that Zinn himself was, as Daniels writes, “anti-American.” Whatever that means.

Why go through the trouble of wiping Zinn out of the state curriculum? Daniels pursues his initial query, “Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana,” all the way down an e-mail chain to an action plan. He suggests a quiet, closer examination of the state’s professional development program for teachers, where Zinn is found on a syllabus. “Go for it,” writes Daniels, “disqualify the propaganda.” First of all, this is not censorship. You can still get a copy of A People’s History of the United States in libraries in Indiana. Daniels never suggested that the right to read it be revoked. And curriculum standards do fall ultimately under the authority of the governor. But it’s hard to argue that it’s an efficient use of executive time.

More than either of these minor sins, though, Daniel’s e-mails betray a lack of courage. Conservatives have always feared the academy. In his first book, God and Man at Yale, a young William F. Buckley alerted parents that they were paying colleges to corrupt their own children. In the war of ideas, then, conservatives would win, were it not for the labor-loving feminists who went for the children. This has always assumed that children are stupid—that they cannot be trusted, when confronted with two ideas, to decide which is the better one. (Or that both ideas have merit.) Yet for decades, despite growing college enrollment, America has continued to regularly send Republicans to Congress and the White House.

The problem for Republicans is not colleges, or teachers, or even cranky anti-American professors. There is, in fact, a war of ideas. Republicans should trust that their ideas are the better ones without having to intervene on the syllabus of a summer course for Indiana high school teachers, making sure a historian of social movements is not included in a course titled “Social Movements in Modern America.” Mitch Daniels’ e-mails aren’t evil or criminal. They’re just embarrassing.

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