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Reagan Authors in Plagiarism Fight

Craig Shirley alleges ‘theft’ by Rick Perlstein.

By 8.5.14

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Not good. Reagan biographer Craig Shirley is the author of Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story That Started It All and Rendezvous With Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America. The books have well established Shirley as a serious authority on Ronald Reagan and the Reagan era, an author simultaneously both deeply informed on his subject and immensely well-plugged to all the authentic sources of the period.

So much so that when Rick Perlstein’s new book, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (the third in a Perlstein series on the modern GOP) began to circulate, Perlstein found himself on the receiving end of accusations of plagiarizing from Shirley. Not to mention a demand for $25 million in damages. On July 25, a “Notice of Copyright Infringement” from an attorney representing Shirley was sent to counsel for Perlstein’s publisher, Simon & Schuster. 

There are three important aspects to this story. The first, of course, is the fact of the threatened $25 million damage suit itself. Let’s begin there.

The letter to Simon & Schuster, the first of two, was both extensive and detailed. It reads, in part:

As detailed below, Mr. Perlstein has infringed Mr. Shirley’s copyright extensively, and in a number of ways. First, he lifts without attribution entire passages from Reagan’s Revolution—in some instances, attempting to conceal his theft by altering words or re-ordering sentences, but in other instances not even bothering to do so. Second, he presents—again without attribution—facts and ideas Mr. Shirley first discovered and developed, recounting them instead as if they were widely known or as if he himself had discovered and developed them.

Accordingly, Mr. Shirley demands that all printed copies of The Invisible Bridge be withdrawn and destroyed. If Simon & Schuster decides to re-issue The Invisible Bridge, Mr. Shirley demands proper attribution for each and every piece of his work that Mr. Perlstein has quoted, paraphrased, used or otherwise relied upon. Likewise, digital copies should be revoked and replaced. And given the extent of the infringement—and what we believe to be its knowing and willful nature—Mr. Shirley also demands $25 million in damages and a public apology from Simon & Schuster and Mr. Perlstein, to be run as an advertisement in/on The Nation, New Republic, Newsweek, The New York Times, Salon, Slate and The Washington Post.

This letter of the 25th was followed by a second on July 28, providing even more examples and alleging “theft of Mr. Shirley’s original expression and ideas.” Both letters contained extensive comparisons of passages from the Shirley and Perlstein books, specifically illustrating the allegations of plagiarism. We will cite but two here:

“About the only person in Kansas City who was keeping cool was Reagan himself… Reagan, watching on television, dissolved in laughter.” (From:  Reagan’s Revolution by Craig Shirley, Page 322.)

“Just about the only person who was calm through the entire thing was Ronald Reagan. He watched it on television in his hotel suite, dissolving in laughter.” (From: The Invisible Bridge by Rick Perlstein, Page 785.)

And this sample passage:

...before the final round of state conventions, Reagan took to the airwaves again, this time on ABC, for a half-hour address to the nation.… This time, however, Reagan never mentioned President Ford's name—or Henry Kissinger or Jimmy Carter’s…. Reagan mainly called for a “New Coalition” of politically conservative minded people from the two parties and from independents. Alluding to Carter, Reagan said, “You can’t get to the heart of an issue by being vague about it. I’m not asking you to help me because I say, ‘Trust me, don’t ask questions and everything will be fine.’ I ask you to trust yourself. Trust your own knowledge of what’s appending in America.”… Reagan made open appeals to ethnic voters in the Northeast, especially Catholics. Reagan closed by quoting Pope Pius XII: “The American people have a genius for great and unselfish deeds. Into the hands of America, God has placed the destiny of an afflicted mankind.” [From: Reagan’s Revolution by Craig Shirley, pages 257-258.]

The final round of state conventions.… Reagan had rented a half hour on ABC.… Mentioning neither Ford nor Kissinger, he called for a “New Coalition” of Republicans and right-leaning Democrats and Independents. He thrust a dagger at Jimmy Carter: “You can't get to the heart of an issue by being vague about it. I’m not asking you to help me because I say, ‘Trust me, don’t ask questions and everything will be fine.’ I ask you to trust yourself. Trust your own knowledge of what’s appending in America." (Then aiming at the Catholic swing vote, he repeated one of his favorite quotations—from Pope Pius XII: “The American people have a genius for great and unselfish deeds. Into the hands of America, God has placed the destiny of an afflicted mankind.”) [From: The Invisible Bridge by Rick Perlstein, page 727.  (Note: Shirley’s office adds, “in Perlstein's notes he only refers to page 257 of CPS’ book where he uses half of the info, the rest is on page 258.”)]

Over at the Weekly Standard Fred Barnes reports that Simon and Schuster’s lawyer has “said Shirley lacks a ‘colorable copyright claim.’ Perlstein, says the S&S lawyer, ‘has not only fully credited Mr. Shirley as a source of certain facts or quotes he uses, but he has given readers an opportunity to engage directly with Mr. Shirley’s work and to purchase it [online].’”  

The second important problem?

Beyond the legalism in the response, what’s being said by the publisher is that Perlstein fully credited Shirley — online. A review by Open Letters Monthly (more of which in a moment) says this:

… the subject of Perlstein’s relation to his sources is a dire and overriding concern throughout The Invisible Bridge, and here, as everywhere else, he doesn’t exactly help things out: he states at the outset that his book will not contain end notes. Instead, he and his publisher decided to move the end notes entirely out of the book and put them on a website, rickperlstein.net, where as many citations as possible will be linked directly to the books and documents from which they’re drawn. “My effort here is about intellectual democracy,” he writes, “in the spirit of the open source software movement.”

Making an argument, apparently, that instead of the usual extensive footnoting found in books of this nature, the crediting was done on a website instead. Whether this is the future of crediting sources remains to be seen — and if what’s happening here is typical of what’s to come, this future isn’t promising. But at a minimum it appears as if Perlstein and his publisher unilaterally decided from the get-go to rewrite the accepted rules of properly noting and crediting sources, the ever reliable if tedious footnotes at the bottom of a page or gathered as chapter notes at the end of the book. Now comes a $25 million lawsuit over this, perhaps highlighting that the old-fashioned way of sourcing is both the most thorough and the safest. 

By way of illustration, one of countless books on all kinds of subjects that is typical of the usual process is the work of another Reagan biographer, Steven F. Hayward. Hayward wrote two books titled The Age of Reagan. The two volumes covering the period between Reagan’s first major appearance on the national political stage in the 1964 Goldwater campaign and the end of his presidency in 1989.  Volume One of Hayward’s work has 49 pages, small print, of chapter notes at the end of the book.  Volume Two has 66 pages of chapter notes, small print again. To illustrate the point, here is Hayward in the prologue of his first volume, writing about the impact Reagan’s televised October 1964 speech for Goldwater had made in terms of Reagan’s own future:

“The day after the election, a group of conservatives in Owosso, Michigan, formed ‘Republicans for Ronald Reagan.’” At the end of the sentence, elevated, is a tiny “3.” Sure enough, in his notes for the prologue, the beginning of those 49 pages of chapter notes, the 3rd entry reads: “Anne Edwards, Early Reagan: The Rise to Power (New York: William Morrow, 1987), p. 486.”

Follow that credit and there on page 486 of Anne Edwards’s book is this sentence: “The day after the November 4, 1964 election, a group of conservatives in Owosso, Michigan, Thomas Dewey’s birthplace, formed ‘Republicans for Ronald Reagan.’” Which is to say, Hayward did his crediting the timelessly correct way. Is it tedious to do this? Well, hello? Yes. Of course. But every job has its tedious side, and this is part of the work of being an author. Can a writer make mistakes? Sure. Easy enough to do. But systemically — over and over and over again, as Shirley’s lawyers list in detail with all these passages from Shirley’s book? To do that instantly opens, as in this case, the charge of systematic plagiarism.

Over at the aforementioned Open Letters Monthly one finds this devastating review of Perlstein’s method. After reviewing the substance of the book, Open Letters managing editor Steve Donoghue zeroes in relentlessly on Perlstein’s method of crediting sources — which extends beyond work by Craig Shirley.

Donoghue writes: 

The stink of sloppiness and data-massaging is so thick that after a couple hundred pages, every juicy or dramatic quote causes a grunt of dismay rather than appreciation. After a while, it honestly feels like anywhere you look you’ll find something fudged, something finessed, or something simply wrong. 

A charge of “the stink of sloppiness” and a serious legal accusation of outright theft is decidedly not the way to do a book roll-out.

Donoghue goes on to illustrate the sourcing problem by following the recommended Perlstein procedure for learning a source by going to an online site. Donoghue writes of one example: 

So off we trudge to rickperlstein.net, click on “Source Notes,” and where do you end up? Vanderbilt Television News Archive, where you can request the relevant one minute and forty seconds of NBC news footage — but you have to register on the site, provide your email, and then pay with your credit card. And by this point you’re left wondering what kind of glutton for punishment would do that… and there’s an actual answer to that question: editors. Editors! In his Acknowledgments, Perlstein thanks a veritable phalanx of research assistants, colleagues, and editors. Did not one single person in that phalanx actually comb through the book’s source notes to see if they matched up with the book’s text? How on Earth can it be possible that so many misrepresentations (enough, indeed, to make them feel inevitable) fill a text that had a phalanx of watchdogs? 

Then there’s the third point, which has nothing to do with plagiarism or proper sourcing but with reports of what Perlstein is up to politically with this book. I have not read the book — but two reviews, that of O’Donoghue and this one in the Washington Free Beacon by Ted Lawrence grasp the point that Perlstein in his fashion is no Reagan fan. Lawrence directly addresses this with what he calls “Perlstein’s obsession with Reagan’s supposedly malign influence” on America. This is historical revisionism and the politics that always goes with it. Fair enough. Here in the New York Times the predictably liberal Frank Rich has delivered the predictably liberal review prizing the book. I must say what fascinates is that Mr. Rich — with his references  a “Republican hierarchy” that was “so out of touch… with its own grass roots” is noting points made here repeatedly… an understanding that developed out of precisely the time period discussed in the Perlstein book. 

There in fact is nothing wrong with this — it is the stuff of eternal historical argument. The problem comes, as illustrated in that Open Letters review and by the threat of a $25 million lawsuit, when an author makes case X in a book — and the sources needed to button-up Case X for the reader are not in the book itself. 

Craig Shirley has issued a statement that reads in part:

The freedom of expression and the protection of private property rights are two of our nation’s cornerstones. A person who believes he or she can take another’s ideas and pass them off as his or her own, without attribution or compensation, strikes a hard blow at those cornerstones. It took me two years to research and write Reagan’s Revolution. I conducted 104 interviews, reviewed dozens of books and thousands of articles, and was granted exclusive access to original source material archived at the Reagan Library. A team of researchers and I poured over rolls of microfiche, memos and various news accounts and other information at the Library of Congress, the Carter and Ford libraries and other institutions. While the facts are not my property or the property of any other person, my original expression of those facts in Reagan’s Revolution is protected intellectual property. 

The merits of a book stand or fall on their own. In this instance, well beyond the substance of the book, what is making news is the author’s methodology. Books last, websites can vanish. Years from now, if someone interested in the story of Ronald Reagan from a liberal perspective stumbles across The Invisible Bridge at a library’s second-hand book sale, and goes to the rickperlstein.net — only to find it vanished into the ether, the author decades deceased — what then for historical research? And how will they ever know that what they are reading is essentially a rewrite of Craig Shirley?

A very bad decision on sourcing has been made here, a decision that could effect not just this lawsuit by a justifiably angry Mr. Shirley — but the writing and sourcing of serious books well into the future. Authors who spend years doing original research are never appreciative of reading their own words somewhere else — portrayed as coming from someone else.

Not good. And as much of a pain in the neck as it is to go through the process of a serious legal protest, Craig Shirley is a highly accomplished writer — he has written on Pearl Harbor and Newt Gingrich as well. He is in effect serving as a stand-in for authors yet to be. And giving fair warning to those who write mega-tomes filled with the “stink of sloppiness.”

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.