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Don't Know Much About History

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Forget about the kids who can't remember whether Lincoln or Johnson was president during World War II. Adults had troubles of their own this year distinguishing past fact from pulp fiction.

You Wish: "It has been more than two decades since the 'war on drugs' was figuratively launched by Ronald Reagan," proclaimed the summer issue of One City, magazine of the Chicago Council on Urban Affairs.

Reality Check: In 1976 Reagan was in no position to launch anything, having just left the California governorship and having failed to win the Republican presidential nomination.

You Wish: "Two Italians were with Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn; John Martini, a trumpeter, and Lieutenant Charles C. DeRudio. Both survived the massacre," according to a fact sheet issued by the National Italian American News Bureau.

Reality Check: "Custer disobeyed orders with the consequence that he and his entire band of 266 men were wiped out in the battle at the Little Bighorn River," according to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica.

You Wish: "Maybe the next conclave will be the occasion when the Catholic people finally have some influence" over the selection of a new pope, wrote Andrew Greeley in the Washington Post National Weekly last month. "If CNN and the other instant news teams are aggressive they could interview all the leading candidates so that Catholics around the world could evaluate them. Then they could do overnight surveys (such as the ones after presidential debates) to see who was popular.... After all, it was once done this way.... Until the end of the first millennium, the parish pastors of Rome (the 'cardinals') would gather in St. John Lateran to choose one of their own members. After they made their choice they brought him out on the balcony. If the crowd cheered, they then crowned the man pope. If the crowd booed, they went back to try again. There are worse ways to elect a leader."

Reality Check: According to a book held in high regard by Father Greeley's flock, this procedure has not always had the best results: "Pilate spoke to [the crowd] again, 'Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?' They shouted back, 'Crucify him!'" (Mark 15:12-15)

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