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As History Repeats Itself, the Scholar Becomes the Story

SUNDAY REPORT

Doris Kearns Goodwin's highly public life has taken many turns. Questions of plagiarism--and how it is defined--are just one chapter.

August 04, 2002|PETER H. KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CONCORD, Mass. — In early January, an anonymous letter arrived at the Washington, D.C., office of the Weekly Standard. It was addressed to Executive Editor Fred Barnes, who had written a piece suggesting that historian Stephen E. Ambrose's book about World War II bombers contained some passages "barely distinguishable" from another author's work.

The mystery correspondent opened with a salute, saying Barnes had been "quite right" to expose Ambrose, and then moved on to the main business of the missive--ratting out another celebrity historian: "I've long been concerned by several instances of plagiarism I noted long ago in Doris Kearns Goodwin's 'The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.' I believe she ought to be called to account, just as Professor Ambrose has."

Passages from the Goodwin book and other Kennedy histories were set down for comparison, beginning with a three-sentence snippet that appeared to be borrowed from a biography of Kathleen Kennedy by Lynne McTaggart, a London-based writer. McTaggart, it would develop, had accused Goodwin long ago of "slavishly" copying her work, a complaint that led to a secret legal settlement.

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... her closest friends [went the McTaggart passage] assumed 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.

... her closest friends [echoed the Goodwin text, published four years after McTaggart's] 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.

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Four more examples from other books followed. Titles, publishers and page numbers were noted, providing Barnes--or, as it turned out, a Weekly Standard research assistant--with a ready-mix case to whip up against the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian.

The tipster, identified in the letter as an "academic historian living in the Northeastern U.S.," closed on a goading note: "Mr. Barnes, I am not sending this tip to any other press outlet for the time being. I'll wait to see what you do with it."

And with that it began, a literary dust-up that would engulf Goodwin, one of the nation's most popular and publicly visible historians. Whether her work was tainted would be debated in newspaper columns, on academic Web sites and on the very talking-head television shows where Goodwin so often played the role of quick-draw historian--always ready with a charmingly told anecdote about how Rutherford B. Hayes or Woodrow Wilson dealt in his White House days with whatever dilemma was confronting the current occupant.

Goodwin was not without defenders. Some came to see in her story one more instance of the machinery of American fame lifting up someone only to drop her down again. Professional jealousy received frequent mention as a motive driving her detractors. At the same time, there were academicians who took from the affair a lesson on the perils of assembly-line scholarship. Still others painted it as part of a larger trend in lost standards and accountability, casting Goodwin as a sort of Kenneth L. Lay of letters.

In her own mind, Goodwin was not--is not--a plagiarist. She takes pains to avoid the very word, referring to the McTaggart business as "that mistake" or "this thing I have done" or simply "it." In an interview, the only time she uttered the word "plagiarism" was to deny committing it in the Kennedy book: "You know, at the time the book was written, it absolutely required intent to deceive in order to be plagiarism. And no one is claiming that. No one is claiming that there was any intent."

Her defense has been that she was guilty only of a "mechanical breakdown," a misdemeanor of sloppy footnoting and subpar paraphrasing in what was her first attempt at a major history. She also maintains that after the Kennedy book, her methodology was cleaned up, so that when it came to "No Ordinary Time," her Pulitzer-winning history of Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt in wartime, "things got checked. We knew. We'd been through this."

Nonetheless, an examination of that book against a handful of the hundreds of texts listed in the bibliography did turn up instances of what appear to be parallel language usage and similarly constructed sentences. For example, on Page 635 of Joseph Lash's "Eleanor and Franklin," published in 1971, this passage is found:

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... so Eleanor composed herself, returned to the living room, and said in her most disarming manner: "It is kind of Mr. Aldrich to offer to be chairman, but is it not better from the point of view of geography to have someone from the Middle West?" At that, she turned to Marshall Field; she knew it was a bothersome responsibility, she said, but could he accept the chairmanship? Somewhat startled, the Chicago philanthropist and stalwart New Dealer did.

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While on Page 99 of Goodwin's book, published in 1994:

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