Goodwin, McTaggart, and That Book Review

Who’s more irritating, the plagiarist or the plagiaree?

Chatterbox has uncovered an important new document in l’affaire Goodwin—one that puts Doris Kearns Goodwin’s chief accuser in an unflattering light. The document is a 1987 review of Goodwin’s book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, by Lynne McTaggart, who later reached a confidential monetary settlement with Goodwin over Goodwin’s appropriation of language from McTaggart’s 1983 book, Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times. Because McTaggart’s book review is likely to become a weapon in the ongoing campaign to exculpate Goodwin that’s being guided by the expert hand of political consultant Bob Shrum (according to the New York Times’ David Kirkpatrick), Chatterbox will begin with a few words about that campaign.

The overarching theme of Goodwin’s self-defense (as waged in Time magazine, in various speeches around the country, and in TV appearances with sympathetic interviewers) is “Poor me.” It’s worked far better than Chatterbox would ever have imagined. The ordinarily pugnacious Tim Russert, for example, was so exquisitely considerate toward Goodwin during an April 6 interview on CNBC that it was difficult to tell who was seducing whom. Note, for example, the following question: “When you go out and talk to audiences in—in—in Minnesota or in Georgia and you say, ‘You know what, folks? I made a mistake. And guess what? My books, I hope, are important historical documents. I’m going to write more of them. In fact, I’m working on a book on Lincoln,’ what’s their reaction?” The question itself was so exculpatory that it obviated the need for any answer.

The Boston Globe, Goodwin’s hometown paper and one of the many institutions on whose board of directors Goodwin has sat, published Lay Off Doris columns by Thomas Oliphant, Ellen Goodman, and James Carroll. Memo to Gen. Shrum: Goodwin’s other friends should be urged to send the Globe their Lay Off Doris columns now. The Globe can’t keep publishing these things forever, and the Harvard Crimson, where Goodwin friend Laurence Tribe mounted his defense, is unfriendly territory, having editorialized that Goodwin should resign from the Harvard Board of Overseers, and having also published a cogent letter by John W. Matthews revealing the flaws in Tribe’s reasoning. (For Chatterbox’s own reply to the Tribe letter, click here.)

The Lay Off Doris template follows these essential guidelines:

  1. Although one should state clearly that Goodwin’s apparently inadvertent lifting of passages was unfortunate, one must not use the word “plagiarize.” Caveat: Some defenders, including Goodwin herself, may use the word “plagiarize” in order to assert that Goodwin did not plagiarize. But this is a high-risk defense. Better not to bring the word up at all so as not to invite the counterargument that Harvard University—where Goodwin, in addition to being a current overseer, was formerly a professor of government in political science—defines plagiarism in a way that clearly includes the inadvertent lifting of passages, even when footnotes are used. (For a case study on how Harvard enforces its plagiarism policy, click here.)
  2. Mention that Goodwin many years ago recompensed Lynne McTaggart for boosting language from her biography of Kathleen Kennedy and that Goodwin added footnotes to her book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, that more fully acknowledged Goodwin’s debt to McTaggart. But do not draw attention to the fact that this was a secret deal that kept the reading public from learning about Goodwin’s plagiarism. Suppress at all costs any memory of the venerable Washington cliché, “the coverup is worse than the crime.”
  3. Emphasize that Goodwin is doing the honorable thing by altering the text in all future editions of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.But avoid noting that Goodwin’s gesture came only after her plagiarism was brought to light by Bo Crader of the Weekly Standard, even though Goodwin had known (from McTaggart) about at least some of the plagiarism for years and had allowed it to remain uncorrected in the text.

A few commentators note that Stephen Ambrose (who was nailed by Fred Barnes in the Weekly Standard and, subsequently, by  Mark Lewis in plagiarized far more extensively than Goodwin but that the spotlight has nonetheless shifted to Goodwin. This is correct. Some of these commentators further suggest that Goodwin is getting all the attention because she is a woman. This is not correct. Goodwin is getting all the attention because Goodwin, unlike Ambrose, remains bent on maintaining her exalted place in the establishment, which tends to frown on plagiarism. She is a respected TV commentator on political events; she sits on the Pulitzer board (which is currently considering whether to boot her); she is used to being taken seriously by academic historians. Ambrose, by contrast, had at best a toehold in the establishment before his plagiarism scandal erupted, and he is making almost no effort now to shore up his respectability. He’s gambling that a less judgmental constituency—war veterans, popular readers—will sustain him even though the academy and the commentariat no longer will. Goodwin, on the other hand, wants the academy and the commentariat to forgive her, and she acts as though the only way to achieve that is to be dishonest about the extent of her sins. Goodwin’s impulse to plead guilty to a lesser offense—to confess, like Ralphie Cifaretto in The Sopranos, only that she “disrespected the Bing“—is what makes her uniquely irritating.

But Goodwin’s chief accuser, Lynne McTaggart, is in her own way quite irritating, too. Chatterbox previously noted his surprise at reading, in a March 16 New York Times op-ed piece, McTaggart’s description of what she did upon discovering Goodwin’s plagiarism while reading The Kennedys and the Fitzgeralds in 1987. To wit: “I wrote a kind review, then hired a copyright lawyer.” How could one write a “kind” review about a book that one knew to contain plagiarized material? Chatterbox queried McTaggart about this via e-mail. McTaggart replied:

By “kind” review, I meant professional, even-handed, rather than mean-spirited or biased. My memory is that I praised some things and criticized other things, and I think alluded to the fact that there were echoes of other material in it.

Chatterbox immediately set about getting a copy of the review, which appeared in the July 9, 1987, issue of the Listener, a now-defunct literary journal published by the British Broadcasting Corporation. (Chatterbox would like to thank Chris Willis, a researcher in London, for tracking it down.) The review ran about 1,000 words, and it did indeed praise some things about Goodwin’s book and criticize others; it started favorably and ended rather negatively. McTaggart’s praise was for Goodwin’s “remarkable feat of academic research,” by which she mostly meant Goodwin’s use of more than a hundred cartons’ worth of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s personal papers. This “flotsam and jetsam of a couple who squirreled away every last train ticket and school report” had not been available to previous biographers. In the Listener review, McTaggart complimented the book’s early chapters, which drew heaviest on archival materials:

The first fourth of this 816-page volume provides a vivid glimpse of the seedy early 20th-century world of gladhanding and ballot stuffing as the florid mayor, John “HoneyFitz” Fitzgerald, clawed his way to prominence through the only route available to an Irish Catholic in Protestant Brahmin Boston. Young Rose Kennedy emerges as a vivacious, ambitious girl whose dreams of personal achievement are thwarted by motherhood. Other revelations abound: Joe Kennedy, who gave the go-ahead for Rosemary’s incapacitating lobotomy, was somehow able to keep the operation from Rose for 20 years.

But McTaggart’s review became less complimentary when she turned her attention to that portion of Goodwin’s book dealing with more recent events. Goodwin’s problem, McTaggart wrote, was that she hadn’t interviewed enough of the principals:

However inspired a historian, she is a timid reporter who stays firmly put in the library. She has ventured out to interview fewer than 50 people (including her own husband [former JFK aide Richard Goodwin]), and only one daughter and the 90-year-old Rose Kennedy among the surviving immediate family.

As a consequence, McTaggart informed Listener readers, Goodwin’s book ended up relying too heavily on previous Kennedy biographies:

Much of the second half of the book is little more than a well-annotated—and in some cases, very closely paraphrased—collection of other Kennedy biographers’ research.

This last snippet is the only reference in McTaggart’s Listener review to Goodwin’s plagiarism. Although it conveyed some flavor of McTaggart’s subsequent complaint, it gave Listener readers no clue how serious the problem was. Goodwin did not “closely paraphrase” McTaggart’s book. She plagiarized it, a word McTaggart had no trouble using in her recent Times op-ed. (A side-by-side comparison of several passages from McTaggart’s book and Goodwin’s in Crader’s Weekly Standard piece makes clear that this was plagiarism.) McTaggart’s polite circumspection in her Listener review undermines her subsequent moralizing about being ripped off. In a March 24 interview with the Associated Press, McTaggart said, “If somebody takes a third of somebody’s book, which is what happened to me, they are lifting out the heart and guts of somebody else’s individual expression.” Why didn’t she tell the Listener’s readers 15 years ago that she felt so strongly about this?

McTaggart claims that venting such mean-spirited thoughts would not have been “professional.” But Chatterbox fails to see what’s professional about downplaying to one’s readers a literary theft prior to seeking secret monetary restitution. As Chatterbox has argued earlier, the actual tort in most cases of plagiarism is pretty negligible. The party that gets harmed the most (and toward whom existing law has no concern) is the reader. Therefore, the best way to resolve cases of plagiarism is to do precisely what McTaggart didn’t: inform the reading public. And the best way to achieve that, Chatterbox continues to believe, is to require authors to waive their right to sue someone else for plagiarism (excepting, of course, blatant copying of multiple whole pages, which amounts to piracy).

The alternative, as McTaggart’s case shows, is to create a financial incentive for an author to keep mum when he finds out he’s been plagiarized. Chatterbox presumes that the Listener ended up paying McTaggart at best a couple hundred dollars for her review. But if you include the cash Goodwin subsequently laid out to McTaggart in their confidential settlement, that Listener review probably earned McTaggart several thousands more.