Rob Burgess

Rob Burgess Tribune night editor

On July 17, The Associated Press revealed via a Freedom of Information Act request a series of emails in which then-governor and current Purdue University President Mitch Daniels explicitly targeted Howard Zinn’s classic book “A People’s History of the United States” for deletion.

“This crap should not be accepted for any credit in the state,” Daniels wrote Feb. 9, 2010, to Scott Jenkins, his education adviser, and the recently disgraced then education chief Tony Bennett. By chance, I have a lateral relationship with the book.

Glenda Breeden is the best friend of my mother-in-law, Patricia C. Coleman. Zinn included a story about Glenda’s husband, Bill Breeden, in later editions of “A People’s History.”

“In an ironic twist, an obscure citizen of the tiny town of Odon, Ind. became a tangential actor in the Iran-contra controversy,” Zinn wrote. “This was a young man named Bill Breeden. … Breeden’s home town of Odon was also the home town of Admiral John Poindexter, [Robert] McFarlane’s successor as [Ronald] Reagan’s National Security Adviser, who was heavily involved in the illegal activities of the Iran-contra affair. One day Bill Breeden noticed that the town ... had renamed one of its streets ‘John Poindexter Street.’ Breeden … stole the sign. He announced that he was holding it for ‘ransom’ — $30 million, the amount of money that had been given to Iran for transfer to the contras. He was apprehended, put on trial, and spent a few days in jail. As it turned out, Bill Breeden was the only person to be imprisoned as a result of the Iran-contra affair.”

I tried my level best to hear Daniels’ side of the story for myself. “I am writing a column about the Howard Zinn controversy and I wanted to give you a chance to comment before I published,” I emailed Daniels July 24. The next day I was replied to by Brian Zink, associate director of editorial for the Purdue University Office of Marketing and Media.

“President Daniels is co-chair of the National Research Council’s Committee on Human Spaceflight,” wrote Zink. “As part of his responsibilities, he is currently off campus in a series of committee meetings.”

Days passed. “I’ve not heard anything,” wrote Zink. “At this point, I would assume it’s unlikely he will be able to get back with you.”

Finally, I had an answer. “I heard back from the president’s office last night,” wrote Zink July 30. “He will be unable to respond directly to the questions you posed.”

I had no trouble interviewing Bill Breeden, co-minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Bloomington. “Probably the highest honor I had in my life was to be included in Howard’s book,” Breeden said. “I respect him greatly. He was a great friend. I could call him anytime.”

The original Daniels emails were sent just days after Zinn died. “This terrible anti-American academic finally passed away,” wrote Daniels about Zinn, a World War II bombardier. “[The book] is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before any more young people are force-fed a totally false version of history.”

Breeden would challenge that assertion. “I’d let him pick the page,” he said. “I’d be more than happy to debate Mitch Daniels about history, because he obviously knows very little.”

If Daniels’ intent was to have less exposure for Zinn’s work, he failed miserably. Kokomo, Carmel, Noblesville — no dice at any of their libraries. Fishers’ library reported a 91-day wait.

“I’ve been thinking about sending Mitch Daniels a thank-you card,” Breeden said. “Zinn is laughing his ass off because he couldn’t have asked for any better publicity.”

My copy from Amazon arrived Saturday. Starting today I’ll be reading about and discussing one chapter a day on Twitter using the hashtag #zinnbookclub.

And governor, if you change your mind, you know where to find me.

Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at rob.burgess@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at twitter.com/robaburg.

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