Behind the fortress walls. Goodwin has made it clear that the book she will defend to the last — the book for which she will pour hot oil on marauding invaders — is No Ordinary Time, her magnum opus, the work for which she won a Pulitzer Prize. If it ever were to be shown that she was as sloppy with that as she was with her earlier book, then it’s possible she could be forced to relinquish her Pulitzer — and her reputation would be in ruins.
Enter Philip Nobile, a former media critic for New York magazine with a passion for gloves-off intellectual combat. In the past, Nobile has gone after the late Alex Haley for his use of lifted material in Roots, and he’s been crusading for several years against radio host Don Imus for his occasional forays into racist humor. (Indeed, I’ve got a folder full of angry e-mails from Nobile, ripping me for failing to see Imus in as negative a light as he does.)
On February 23, Nobile wrote a piece for the History News Network charging that The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys also includes passages plagiarized from three other books: Kenneth O’Donnell and David Powers’s Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye (1972); Peter Collier and David Horowitz’s The Kennedys: An American Drama (1974); and Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The Shirer examples did not strike me as particularly strong, but I found the passages cited from the other two books to be troubling. In any case, they fit with Goodwin’s acknowledgment that there are numerous problems with The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.
Far more controversial, though, is Nobile’s campaign against No Ordinary Time, first reported in an Alex Beam column in the Globe. According to Nobile, Goodwin lifted from David McCullough’s Truman (1992); but he has been unable to persuade anyone to publish his findings, including the History News Network.
Nobile declined to provide me with his examples, so I plowed through the footnotes to No Ordinary Time myself and found six citations to Truman. Three were straightforward attributions of direct quotes by historical figures. No problem there. The other three paralleled Truman in small fragments, but, at least in my estimation, qualified as paraphrase rather than plagiarism. The closest call came in a passage about FDR's funeral. Goodwin: "Never, Truman later wrote, would he forget the sight of so many people in grief." McCullough: "Never would he forget, Truman wrote, the sight of so many people in grief." But that’s just one rather pedestrian sentence, and the surrounding material in each of the two books is quite different. (After the Phoenix went to press, Nobile published his findings on the Web site MobyLives.com, at http://www.mobylives.com/Nobile_Goodwin.html.)
Barring any further disclosures, I’m prepared to accept Goodwin’s assertion that No Ordinary Time is free of the sort of problems that have been found in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. No one — not me, not Beam, probably not even Nobile — would be talking about her close paraphrasing of McCullough were it not for the problems with her earlier book.
PERHAPS THE MOST crucial thing to keep in mind is that the standard Goodwin violated in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys is very tough, but it’s a standard she chose to impose upon herself both by affiliating with Harvard and by presenting herself as a serious historian. As Tim Noah and others have pointed out, if one of her students at Harvard had done the same thing she did, that student could be kicked out, with no guarantee of being allowed to return, and with a permanent blot on his or her academic record.
History-writing is a solitary job, but it takes place within a community. And it’s the standards of that community that Goodwin violated. Because she failed to pay sufficient respect to those who preceded her, she has created the risk that those who come after will give her credit that she isn’t due — that someone will footnote a small but telling literary flourish and attribute it to Goodwin rather than Lynne McTaggart or Peter Collier and David Horowitz or Hank Searls.
One fascinating little sideshow: Goodwin has found herself in far more trouble than Stephen Ambrose, whose plagiarizing is, if anything, far more pervasive than hers. The difference is how they see themselves, and how they wish to be seen by others. Ambrose is frankly and openly a popularizer who does not much care about what the academy thinks of him. In a piece for Slate, Columbia University historian David Greenberg recounted what Ambrose told the New York Times: "I tell stories.... I am not writing a PhD dissertation.... I wish I had put the quotation marks in, but I didn’t." Etc.
By contrast, Greenberg noted, Goodwin wants to be seen as a popular historian who is also respected by the academy. "Because the reputation she wants to protect lies with elites, not just with an undiscerning mass, she couldn’t shrug off her plagiarism and still preserve her reputation, even if she wanted to," wrote Greenberg, who is an admirer of Goodwin’s. "She’s in an impossible bind: The more she tries to fix her mistakes, the more attention she draws to them."
Last week, David Gates wrote an essay in Newsweek about the Goodwin scandal in which he recounted trying to analyze similar passages in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys and Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye. His conclusion is fair warning for anyone who tries to make definitive statements about this: "I went at this stuff with a yellow highlight pen. My conclusion? A hell of a mess. And my head hurt."
So does mine.
Goodwin committed plagiarism, but I don’t think she is, at heart, a plagiarist. She’ll be back. What she’ll have to live with is the legacy of the celebrity media scandal. She may regain her popularity and dazzle readers with her Lincoln biography, but it won’t quite be the same. She may even be described as a "controversial" historian, that slippery phrase used by lazy commentators who can’t remember and don’t care what was behind the "controversy" they’re alluding to.
Thus, even if she comes back and thrives — and it’s a good bet that she will — she’ll be permanently diminished as a public figure.
And nobody will be able to say exactly why.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com