THERE IS A CERTAIN predictability in the way a media scandal such as the one engulfing historian Doris Kearns Goodwin plays out. It begins with the initial accusation — in this case, of plagiarism — followed by the accused party’s response. It then escalates, with more allegations, more responses, and the arrival of ax-grinding outsiders who sign up for the prosecution or the defense depending on their ideological and personal inclinations. Finally, the accused slips out of sight — usually without anyone’s really understanding what happened in the first place — only to be resurrected somewhere down the line. The sins of the past are entirely forgotten and mostly forgiven, save for that nagging suspicion that, well, she must have done something wrong. Otherwise, why would she have gotten into trouble in the first place?
Goodwin, who has admitted to lifting other writers’ material without proper credit in her 1987 bestseller The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (Simon & Schuster), is right at that just-about-to-slip-out-of-sight stage. She’s been relieved of duty in judging this year’s Pulitzer Prize nominations, and she’s been dropped — maybe temporarily, maybe not — from The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, on PBS. She’s lost out on a few college speaking gigs. The Harvard Crimson has called on her to resign from the university’s Board of Overseers, arguing that she committed literary crimes that would cost a mere undergraduate his or her academic career.
These are, of course, serious, real-world problems for a scholar. But at the same time that Goodwin has thrived as a historian, she has also become a media celebrity, a reliable television talking head whose unpretentious erudition and sensible moderation have made her welcome in millions of living rooms. And within that artificial reality, different rules apply.
In media terms, she now occupies familiar ground. There’s Mike Barnicle, a man whose own record of professional misdeeds — serial plagiarizing and fabricating, and falsely claiming years ago to have written speeches for Robert Kennedy and to have helped write the screenplay for The Candidate — far exceed Goodwin’s. (Ironically, Goodwin and her husband, former presidential aide Richard Goodwin, have publicly defended Barnicle.) There’s Paula Poundstone, who pled guilty to child endangerment for driving drunk, and who was hit with murky charges of child abuse as well. And, of course, there’s Gary Condit and his reprehensible behavior following the disappearance of Chandra Levy. On the surface, these cases have nothing to do with one another. But they do share this: as with Barnicle, Poundstone, and Condit, the actual case against Goodwin will, over time, fade in importance in comparison to how people feel about her: whether they like her, whether they think she’s good on TV, and whether they enjoy her books, assuming they’ve ever read any of them.
Barnicle’s back, writing columns for the New York Daily News, hosting a talk show on WTKK Radio (96.9 FM), and popping up on WCVB-TV/Channel 5’s Chronicle and MSNBC. Poundstone is trying to come back, and is performing in Boston this week. Condit is gone, but rest assured he’ll find some way of reinventing himself — perhaps as a professional media victim on the cable talk shows, followed by a lucrative second career as a Washington lobbyist.
And if you think I’m off base in comparing Barnicle’s and Goodwin’s literary transgressions with the far more serious matters involving Poundstone and Condit, well, that’s the point. In mass-media culture, everything is flattened out. Plagiarism and child endangerment are just two interchangeable aspects of the vague, generic charge of "wrongdoing," a convenient shorthand term that can be repeated endlessly in the speeded-up, dumbed-down news cycle. The charge sticks even when it can be disproved — and yet, when true, it rarely inflicts more than passing damage.
Before this past week, I had read only one of Goodwin’s books — her first, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (Harper & Row, 1976). But you needn’t read 900-page books in their entirety to evaluate charges of plagiarism. You need only compare Goodwin’s passages with her sources. For this piece, I sought neither her comments nor those of anyone else. As is generally the case in such a media scandal, everyone is on the record, in some cases repeatedly. What’s missing is an attempt to make sense of that record.
It’s not likely that many people are taking pleasure in Goodwin’s ordeal. She is, by most accounts, a nice person who works hard on her books. A Concord resident, she is also a local celebrity, someone in whom Bostonians have justifiably taken some pride. She has essentially admitted to plagiarism in the case of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. But though her Pulitzer-winning 1994 opus on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, No Ordinary Time (Simon & Schuster), has come under question, it seems solid enough to me to withstand sustained assault. Doris Kearns Goodwin is not a fraud. She is, rather, an earnest, well-intentioned historian who made some serious mistakes.
But before she slips out of sight, before the nascent stirrings of her inevitable comeback can even begin, it’s worthwhile to consider what it is she actually did.