When I quoted from a widely circulated "fact sheet" about the importance of one vote. I had misgivings.
An elderly columnist develops an early-warning baloney detector. When he touches a document that contains suspicious "facts," an alarm in his brain begins to go, "Clickety-clack, clickety-clack."
Sysmptoms of depression appear at once. The writer knows he is destined to spend hours in unrewarding research. He is doomed to the wasted effort of a time-consuming but unproductive WPA project. Verifying that something happened can be tedious enough. Trying to prove that something didn't happen is almost impossible.
I reread the fact sheet carefully. It said, "In 1845, one vote saved Andrew Johnson from impeachment."
"Aha!" I cried. "I found this one quickly." A few minutes in our library produced 1868 as the proper date for Johnson's escape from impeachment.
I made the change, but the clickety-clacks didn't stop. So I went over the fact sheet with a library researcher.
After a few minutes, he exclaimed, "It says one vote gave Rutherford D. Hayes the presidency. Hayes' middle name was Birchard, so the middle initial is wrong. Change him to Rutherford B. Haynes."
I no longer marvel at the things librarians know. I just went back to my video display terminal and changed Hayes' middle initial to a B. But the clickety-clacks in my brain continued unabated. My attention then focused on a claim that Massachusetts had once picked a governor by one vote.
Back to the library I went, but to no avail. I could neither prove nor disprove the statement.
A glance at the clock revealed that deadline time was approaching. Two flicks of the "delete line" key sent that ancient governor of Massachusetts into electronic limbo.
But the clickety-clacks continued. I noticed that the fact sheet said, "In 1923, one vote gave Adolph Hitler control of the Nazi Party."
I said to myself, "The usual spelling is 'Adolf.' Maybe that's it."
I changed Adolph to Adolf. The only thing that happened was that the clicks and clacks grew louder. "Maybe 1923 is the wrong date," I mused.
I went back to the library for about 45 minutes of futile searching. Finally my researcher said, "I'm going to call Andy. He has a good library at home."
I was appalled. It was after midnight and Andy's day off. But librarians are also annoyed by the clickety-clack of baloney detectors, so Andy worked cheerfully on my problem for an hour. When he called back, he said, "The best I can make of it is that 1921 is a more likely date, but I can't prove it. Maybe the guy who wrote '1923' knew something we don't know."
I thanked him and decided to have the Hilter line intact. But the clicks and clacks just would not stop.
I was faced with a different decision. Should I disregard the sixth-sense that told me the fact sheet was still in error, or should I scrap the column and begin writing a new one on another subject?
I decided to disregard the old husbands' tale that columnists can always detect baloney no matter how thinly sliced it is. The one-vote fact sheet preached an excellent lesson -- that every vote is important -- so what difference did it make if a few dates and middle initials were wrong?
That's the kind of rationalization for which columnists usually pay dearly. This was no exception.
Yesterday a letter arrived from Jim Dougherty of Alexandria. He, too, had heard the story that one vote made English, rather than German, our official language. He checked it with the Library of Congress, which had heard is so many times before that it had printed up a detailed statement debunking the story.
To paraphrase for the sake of brevity: It never happened. It couldn't have happened because few of the Founding Fathers spoke German. However, a myth arose because many Pennsylvanians did speak German, and the story was that when the state legislature was asked to rule whether German or English should be the official language, the vote resulted in a tie. The presiding officer, Frederick Augustua Muhlenber, although of German descent, was said to have voted for English.
Pennsylvania's official records indicate that Muhlenberg never cast such a vote. He broke only one tie, and it was on an entirely unrelated matter -- possibly on a proposal to redeem empty cigarette packages for free time on a lung or kidney machine.