BOMBS AWAY: An overlooked must read in the New York Times is its letters to the editor section. From time to time a voice of sanity might be included among a half dozen or so (well-edited) missives blasting Bush-Enron or Enron-Bush.
But my favorite sort of Times letter is one from a well-known figure snuck in among the less recognizable names. For example, that’s how Mikhail Gorbachev last fall let everyone know he was standing in solidarity with America and New York post-September 11. It’s not clear if anyone noticed.
Similarly, it’s not known if anyone picked up on George McGovern’s letter last week defending his hagiographer Stephen Ambrose against charges of plagiarism. But by any standard it was a breathtaking bit of bilge. As the Weekly Standard‘s Fred Barnes demonstrated in breaking the Ambrose scandal, Ambrose even attributed one of his stolen passages to McGovern. Nonetheless, McGovern calls Ambrose “a brilliant author,” “a superb historian,” and a patriot who has donated millions to “environmental and educational causes.”
Too bad he didn’t address one of Ambrose’s more fatuous, but no doubt honestly derived, claims that McGovern should have played up his war record in 1972. Right, the candidate of an antiwar movement that equated the U.S. military with Nazi evil would have been free and eager to pass himself off as Bomber George. Isn’t a historian supposed to remember the history he lived through?
FEEL MY PAIN BEAUSE I WORK SO HARD DEPARTMENT: To Stephen Ambrose’s credit, when caught using “borrowed passages,” as the New York Times put it, he attempted no convoluted defenses of his own. Not so Dame Doris Kearns Goodwin, whom the Weekly Standard also caught having cavalierly presented another historian’s work as her own. Her defense is a thing of beauty. Writing in Time, she describes how immense a project the book in question was: “900 page[s],” “3,500 footnotes,” “150 cartons of materials,” “handwritten notes on perhaps 300 books,” all notes “arranged chronologically” in “dozens of folders in 25 banker’s boxes.” Scrupulous to a fault, after finishing her manuscript, which she wrote “[i]mmersed in a flood of papers,” she “went back to all these sources to check the accuracy of attributions.” Then come two sentences perhaps lifted from Bill Clinton: “As a final protection, I revisited the 300 books themselves.” (Protection? Such a nineties word.) Then the clincher: “Somehow in this process, a few of the books were not fully rechecked.” The passive voice is a thing of beauty in tight spots.
By the end of her apologia she’s stretching beyond recognition. Giving in to technology in her notetaking from books, she writes that she “now rel[ies] on a scanner, which reproduces the passages I want to cite.” A scanner? Despite the errors it’s bound to introduce? Now she’s really asking for trouble. No matter. If ever another error of attribution comes up, she’ll fix it as soon as possible, “for my own sake and the sake of history.” But not, apparently, for the sake of the cheated historian.
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