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Non-Fiction, We Presumed

There’s nothing worse than finding an error of fact in a non-fiction book. It sort of makes the reader wonder whether finishing it is worth the effort. The Monitor has had several such unpleasant moments in recent weeks while perusing books ranging in tone from silly to somber.

Kissing Bill O’Reilly, Roasting Miss Piggy (St. Martin’s Press) is a slender volume of mini-essays by film and TV critic Ken Tucker. Thumbing through the book at a local bookstore, the Monitor chanced upon a reference to “the late Richard Moll,” the actor who played the towering, good-natured Bailiff Bull in the mid-1980’s hit sitcom “Night Court.” Richard Moll dead? The news came as a complete surprise – with good reason, it turned out, as a Google search later that day confirmed that Moll is very much alive. (He’s also the son-in-law of the late Milton Berle, who happens to be genuinely dead.)

The Monitor, something of an aficionado of old TV shows, next turned to the chapter on the 1960’s “Batman” series. Talk about an error-filled mess. Tucker has the show premiering in 1964, when in fact it debuted in January 1966. He claims there were “no fewer than three incarnations of Catwoman (Julie Newmar, Lee Meriweather, and Eartha Kitt),” when in fact Meriwether (Tucker misspelled her name) only appeared in the feature-length theatrical release, never in the TV series. And he writes that the show “burned out through overexposure after a mere two seasons,” when in fact it lived on for a third season (1967-68) with the character of Batgirl added to the cast.

A more serious book is Jonathan Mahler’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), an account of New York City in the eventful year of 1977 as seen through the prism of mayoral politics and the New York Yankees’ world championship season. Mahler describes Massachusetts Congressman Tip O’Neill as being “in his final weeks as Speaker of the House” – in the fall of 1976. In fact, O’Neill first began his tenure as Speaker of the House in 1977. A relatively trivial mistake, to be sure, but still disconcerting when found in a quality book from a prestigious publisher.

Victor Navasky, publisher of the left-wing Nation magazine, is out with a memoir called A Matter of Opinion (also published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Twice in the space of two pages he has rival opinion journal National Review commencing operations in 1956, when in fact it was 1955. Navasky also relates an anecdote in which he has the journalist and Communist-turned-conservative Whittaker Chambers working as a contributing editor at National Review in 1963, when in fact Chambers died in 1961.

The Monitor had looked forward to reading David Harris’s The Crisis: The President, the Prophet, and the Shah – 1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam (Little, Brown) – until, that is, a quick skim of it revealed a slew of embarrassing errors.

Harris, for one thing, botched the identification of a television special on Senator Edward Kennedy that – due to its unflattering portrait of the Massachusetts senator and its airing on the evening of Nov. 4, 1979, coincidentally the very day mobs seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran – quickly entered the annals of American political folklore.

According to Harris the Kennedy fiasco was a segment on “60 Minutes,” when in fact it was an hour-long CBS News documentary hosted by veteran CBS news hand Roger Mudd, who had nothing to do with “60 Minutes.”

But what really convinced the Monitor to forgo the Harris book was a quick read of the epilogue in which readers are supposedly brought up to date on the story’s central characters. In one howler, Harris writes that Warren Christopher (a deputy secretary in the Jimmy Carter State Department) “returned to Washington and served eight years as secretary of state” under Bill Clinton, when in fact Christopher served just one term, replaced after Clinton’s reelection by Madeleine Albright.

Harris makes an equally bad mistake in tracking Walter Mondale (Carter’s vice president) whom he describes as having “returned briefly to the U.S. Senate in 2002 to fill out the few months remaining in the unexpired term of Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, killed in a plane crash,” when in fact Mondale never “returned” to the Senate, even for a second – he was merely a candidate during the last week of the campaign, losing to Republican Norm Coleman. Gov. Jesse Ventura appointed Dean Barkley, a close associate, to serve the remainder of Wellstone’s term.

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at jmaoz@jewishpress.com.

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