Mistakes Were Made

Who’s the cannier apologizer, Ambrose or Goodwin?

Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin now stand in the dock together, jointly scolded by journalists, from Alex Beam to Martin Arnold to Philip Nobile. (Both sagas, replete with links, are laid out here.) Lumping the cases together is wrong. Although the historians’ initial offenses were similar, the editorialists who damn them equally have ignored how each historian has responded to the charges—and what those responses say about their work, their views of history, and their audiences. Goodwin admirably insists that “professional standards for historians need never be sacrificed in popular history” and has conscientiously tried to protect her reputation. Ambrose has in effect conceded that his writing isn’t scholarship—and thus has felt free to shrug off his critics.

Unlike the inhumanly prolific Ambrose, Goodwin is no book-a-year factory. Since leaving academia, she’s maintained a high level of scholarship, spending seven to 10 years on her books. Her work exhibits, as I’ve argued, an original and creative methodology, supporting her belief that readable history needn’t be dumbed down.

Knowing that other scholars, and her PBS-watching readers, are eyeing her critically, Goodwin has earnestly tried to explain how she slipped up. Granted, her mistakes-were-made constructions (“Somehow in this process, a few of the books were not fully rechecked”) are a dodge. And she should’ve corrected her 1987 book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys as soon as she learned of the plagiarism. But on the whole, Goodwin has acknowledged the gravity of her sins and has gracefully submitted herself to questioning. Her assistants have scrutinized the Kennedy book for other liftings, and Simon & Schuster will issue a corrected edition.

Ambrose, in contrast, has been fairly cavalier about his offenses. To the New York Times, he suggested he hadn’t done anything terrible:

I tell stories. … I am not writing a Ph.D. dissertation. … I wish I had put the quotation marks in, but I didn’t. I am not out there stealing other people’s writings. If I am writing up a passage and it is a story I went to tell and this story fits and a part of it is from other people’s writing, I just type it up that way and put it in a footnote. I just want to know where the hell it came from.

Since then, he has basically ignored the charges, apparently hoping they’ll disappear. And in the eyes of his readers, it seems they have: The author drew cheers recently in St. Louis before a crowd of 2,100. “His books are fabulous,” one listener told the Associated Press. “I really haven’t followed the plagiarism controversy, but … if the accusations were true, I would be disappointed but continue to read his work and buy his books.” Most academics stopped thinking of Ambrose as a serious historian long ago—even though some of his books, including his Nixon volumes (which I use in my own research) remain respected. And as the above quotation suggests, Ambrose has stopped caring what professionals think. He seems happy to have traded in ivory-tower drudgery for best-sellerdom. And so he’s free to walk away from the scolds, knowing his mass constituency supports him.

Ironically, Goodwin seems to be the one suffering more—having her membership on various boards questioned, her speaking invitations withdrawn. 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. She’s in an impossible bind: The more she tries to fix her mistakes, the more attention she draws to them.

The difference between Goodwin and Ambrose recalls the difference between Al Gore and George Bush in the 2000 election aftermath. One tried to cultivate elite opinion, which he could never satisfy. The other played to the masses and didn’t care how irresponsible he looked. Guess who wound up in the White House?