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Is Rick Perlstein the New Doris Kearns Goodwin?

Paul Krugman, liberals, and plagiarism.

By 8.7.14

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Rick Perlstein is not the only well-known writer of history at Simon & Schuster to stand accused of plagiarism. And no, contrary to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, there is no “Sliming Rick Perlstein” going on inside the world of conservatism.

Stunningly, Krugman wrote this of the charges surrounding the $25 million lawsuit coming from Reagan biographer Craig Shirley:

OK, this is grotesque. Rick Perlstein has a new book, continuing his awesomely informative history of the rise of movement conservatism — and he’s facing completely spurious charges of plagiarism.

How do we know that they’re spurious? The people making the charges — almost all of whom have, surprise, movement conservative connections — aren’t pointing to any actual passages that, you know, were lifted from some other book. 

There are, in fact, dozens of instances specifically cited in the correspondence from Shirley’s attorney to the counsel at Simon & Schuster.

Then there was this jewel of haughtiness over at the Washington Monthly hotly defending Perlstein, written by a… (quiet reverence here)… professor out there at Berkeley. Who described Perlstein as a  “historian with a reputation.” Ah, yes. Historians with reputations. 

Balderdash. Before liberals flock lemming-like to Perlstein’s defense, they should take a deep breath and, uncharacteristically, pause to think. The charges being made against Simon & Schuster author Perlstein mirror exactly the charges made a while back against two other Simon & Schuster authors with much bigger reputations as historians than Perlstein: Doris Kearns Goodwin and the late Stephen Ambrose. 

For those who came in late, Ms. Kearns Goodwin came to fame originally as a young biographer of her one-time boss in Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, published by Harper & Row. The then-Ms. Kearns was a White House Fellow at the end of the Johnson era, eventually pressed into service by an insistent LBJ to spend her non-Harvard teaching time (she would become a government professor) at the LBJ ranch with the ex-President and First Lady, assisting in his memoirs. Her own Johnson book a success, marrying another ex-Johnson/ex-JFK aide (Richard Goodwin), Kearns Goodwin was launched on a career as a popular historian. That interesting if rarified very American perch that includes, among others, David McCullough, the late Stephen Ambrose, and a handful of others. Winning a Pulitzer Prize along the way, she produced one book after another — on the Roosevelts (Franklin, Eleanor, and Theodore’s battle with William Howard Taft), Lincoln and, of course, the Kennedys. Not to mention her beloved game of baseball. Along with this literary output and her academic career, Kearns Goodwin became a media celebrity, in particular with a spot on the PBS News Hour.

Thus the shock waves when a claim surfaced in the Weekly Standard’s January 28, 2002 issue that America’s historian sweetheart had plagiarized. The article, by Bo Crader, said in part that the Standard had “received a letter pointing out that Goodwin’s The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys borrowed with insufficient attribution from three earlier works by other authors.”

Safe to say, an uproar ensued. A big uproar as these things go. It had zero to do with imaginary conservative political conspiracies of the kind left-wing columnist Krugman and others have conjured. Eventually, Kearns Goodwin yielded her coveted spot on the PBS News Hour. And a settlement was reached with the author she was accused of plagiarizing. Kearns Goodwin has moved on, and so has the world. 

But the accusations were eerily similar to those now being made against S&S author Perlstein. To wit: that Kearns Goodwin took material, changed a few words, and presented the material as her own. The Weekly Standard article from 2002 cited examples, and the following quote comes from that story:

BUT THE MOST striking borrowing is from Lynne McTaggart’s 1983 Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times.

McTaggart, for example, writes that

“her [Kathleen’s] closest friends assumed that she and Billy were ‘semiengaged.’ On the day of the party reports of a secret engagement were published in the Boston papers.… The truth was that the young couple had reached no such agreement.” (p. 65)

The corresponding passage in Goodwin’s book differs by just a few words:

“her [Kathleen’s] closest friends assumed she and Billy were semi-engaged. On the day of the party, reports of a secret engagement were published in the Boston papers.… The truth was that the young couple had reached no such agreement.” (p. 586)

McTaggart:

“Hardly a day passed without a photograph in the papers of little Teddy, taking a snapshot with his Brownie held upside down, or the five Kennedy children lined up on a train or bus.” (p. 25)

Goodwin:

“Hardly a day passed without a newspaper photograph of little Teddy taking a snapshot with his camera held upside down, or the five Kennedy children lined up on a train or bus.” (p. 523)

McTaggart: 

“Mrs. Gibson gave a tea in her honor to introduce her to some of the other girls—hardly a routine practice for new recruits.” (p. 130)

Goodwin:

“Mrs. Harvey Gibson gave a tea in her honor to introduce her to some of the other girls—hardly a routine practice for new recruits.” (p. 666)

There are dozens more such parallels in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.

Now let’s stop here for a moment and move to the case of Stephen Ambrose. Like Kearns Goodwin, Ambrose was a Simon & Schuster author, and a famous one with a high public visibility. Far from being a target of conservative wrath, Ambrose was a hero to many for his work on World War II histories, including Band of Brothers, which later became an HBO series.

Ironically, it was another Weekly Standard article, titled “Stephen Ambrose, Copycat” and was written by Fred Barnes, that raised questions. The subtitle? “The latest work of a bestselling historian isn’t all his.” Barnes recounts the tale of the similarities between Ambrose’s The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany, 1944-45 and a book by author Thomas Childers titled The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down over Germany in World War II. Wrote Barnes of Ambrose in 2002: 

The two books are similar in more than just subject. Whole passages in The Wild Blue are barely distinguishable from those in Wings of Morning. Sentences in Ambrose’s book are identical to sentences in Childers’s. Key phrases from Wings of Morning, such as "glittering like mica" and "up, up, up," are repeated verbatim in The Wild Blue. None of these—the passages, sentences, phrases—is put in quotation marks and ascribed to Childers. The only attribution Childers gets in The Wild Blue is a mention in the bibliography and four footnotes. And the footnotes give no indication that an entire passage has been lifted with only a few alterations from Wings of Morning or that a Childers sentence has been copied word-for-word. So, for example, one six-paragraph passage in The Wild Blue is structured like the corresponding section of Wings of Morning, with ten sentences nearly identical to sentences in Childers’s book and one completely identical. All this is dealt with in a single footnote that cites pages 21 to 27 in Wings of Morning with no further explanation or credit.

The accusations against Ambrose would gain steam after a Forbes article by Mark Lewis. (Ambrose would die eight months later.) The charges raised by Lewis concern not just that particular Ambrose book. They also focus on accusations that “dozens of passages in at least six Ambrose books have been called into question.”

These examples feature almost exactly the same charge that Shirley’s lawyer made in a letter to Simon & Schuster about the Perlstein book:

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.

The lawyer for Shirley presents repeated specific examples of the Shirley/Perlstein controversy. Just two of them as follows:

Shirley, Page 298: “The hotel’s manager, Maurice Bluhm, threatened to cancel the reservation of the state’s entire delegation until the man apologized.”
Perlstein, Page 770: “The manager threatened to cancel his entire delegation’s reservations until the chairman apologized.”

Shirley, Page 322: “About the only person in Kansas City who was keeping cool was Reagan himself… Reagan, watching on television, dissolved in laughter.”
Perlstein, Page 785: “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.”

One thing is for sure. There was no deep, dark conspiracy among those who, to quote Krugman exactly, “have, surprise, movement conservative connections.”

Mr. Krugman — and the Left in general — despise Ronald Reagan. Mr. Perlstein is no fan. But writing books attacking popular presidents (not to mention unpopular presidents) is the stuff of history. Attacks on Reagan, as with Lincoln, FDR, JFK and others, will continue as near to eternity as there is such a thing. There is nothing Mr. Perlstein’s book can do to dent, damage, or explode Ronald Reagan’s historical contributions and the high marks he routinely gets from Americans as a great president. (As in this Gallup Poll bearing the heading: “Americans Say Reagan Is the Greatest U.S. President.”)

In his column, Mr. Krugman used the twenty-dollar word “spurious” — twice — in describing all of this. Curiously, the very same word was used in an e-mail to me from the Director of Publicity at Simon & Schuster. But calling something “spurious” doesn’t make it so, any more than circling the wagons protects the author at the center of the controversy.

Stay tuned.

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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.