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A Widely Known Fact? Maybe Not

EACH of us has had the experience of being absolutely certain that something happened in a particular way, only to learn subsequently that it wasn't like that at all. What's more interesting, an understanding of an event is sometimes so widely shared and deeply embedded that it comes to be seen as simple historical fact - even though the actual event or occurrence was entirely different. We were given a fresh example of this earlier in the month, following the report that the grave of Eric Liddell had been found in Weifang, China.

Liddell was the Scot who set a world record for the 400-meter run in the 1924 Olympics, then went on to 20 years of missionary service in China. He died in 1945, while interned by the Japanese. One chapter in his exemplary life is beautifully portrayed in the movie, ``Chariots of Fire.''

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Liddell refused, on grounds of religious conviction, to run in another Olympic event, the 100 meter dash, because his heat was held on a Sunday. This decision is a centerpiece of the movie. In its story that Liddell's unmarked grave had at last been located, the New York Times reported that the Scot's decision not to run on that July Sunday had ``astounded the world'' and ``made headlines around the world .... ''

Of course, for all of us who have seen ``Chariots,'' Liddell's choice was not only fine, but celebrated. Yet, in fact, at the time it was scarcely noted outside Scotland. The New York Times, which gave good coverage to the ``Scotchman's'' victory in the 400, mentioned the decision not to run only once - in a paragraph buried deep within a story devoted to the color of the game's opening ceremony (``2000 Star Athletes in Olympic Parade''). The Times of London never once mentioned Liddell's not running on the Sabbath, not even in its July 18, 1924, account of his being honored at the graduation ceremony of Edinburgh University. The most extensive coverage I have found is in Time Magazine, then in its second year of publication, which mentioned the decision in passing in two stories, July 21 and Sept. 1.

Thanks to the movie, Eric Liddell's loyalty to his convictions has indeed ``made headlines around the world.'' But it didn't do so in 1924.

Many widely shared perceptions of political figures are entirely fanciful. Consider the common view of President Calvin Coolidge as a taciturn apologist for no-holds-barred capitalism - ``The business of America is business.'' Actually, ``Silent Cal'' was given to long, eloquent speeches in which, again and again, he rejected the tendency to so elevate economic success.

For example, in an address on July 5, 1926, Coolidge insisted that the US was founded on spiritual values, which must again receive primacy or the nation will fail. ``Unless one clings to that,'' he concluded, ``all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren sceptre in our grasp .... We must not sink into a pagan materialism.''

Coolidge's deepest conviction was that the proper business of America was something far more profound than business.

I spend quite a bit of my time examining public opinion surveys. The reigning account of the field's development holds that the infant Gallup Poll enjoyed a great success in predicting the outcome of the 1936 presidential election - thus legitimizing the still-new enterprise of systematic polling - but that 12 years later Gallup failed badly in his reading of the 1948 election, almost discrediting opinion research.

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Now, there's no question that the Gallup Poll's 1936 record was praised and its 1948 performance condemned. But in fact, Gallup's last reading of the public's intentions in the Truman-Dewey race was closer to the mark than his last Roosevelt-Landon reading had been. Throughout the fall of 1936, Gallup showed FDR ahead of his Republican opponent, but by fairly narrow margins. In the last survey, taken in late October, Roosevelt was shown getting 54 percent of the vote. Actually, the president got 61 percent - so, if you will, the poll was ``off'' by seven percentage points.

The 1948 contest, the first in two decades without FDR, was a much tougher one for a poll to handle. For one thing, it was a four-way race, and it was hard to know how well Progressive Henry Wallace and States Rights candidate Strom Thurmund would do. Moreover, Gallup ended polling on Oct. 25, seven days before the balloting, and was thus wholly unable to chart late-breaking trends. Still, Gallup recorded Truman's strength at 45 percent, compared to the approximately 50 percent the president actually received. In short, Gallup was off by 5 points in the race that was his greatest failure, whereas he had been off 7 points in his greatest success.

Distortions in our historical understanding are sometimes large and consequential, at other times modest and innocent. In any case, it's not bad to be a bit skeptical about accounts that ``everyone knows'' to be right.

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