Historian Stephen Ambrose, 66, died Sunday. His tongue-bath obituaries all but clear him of the plagiarism charges that dogged his final year. The Washington Post, after 1,500 words of gush, glosses over the plagiarism as mere lack of quotations in a “couple of books” and hints that academic “jealousy” of Ambrose—not his own misdeeds—caused the controversy. The widely printed Associated Press obit similarly neglects plagiarism till the last few paragraphs, and then allots more space to Ambrose’s belligerent rebuttal than to the actual theft. His hometown New Orleans Times-Picayune also leaves the plagiarism till the end and allows Tom Brokaw to dismiss it as an “asterisk” on his career. The TV obituaries don’t refer to it at all. Only the New York Times, which discovered some of Ambrose’s larceny, delves into Ambrose’s wrongdoing early and at length.
All the obits, including the Times, give credence to Ambrose’s excuses. He is described as having merely omitted quotation marks in a few passages when he had already footnoted the author. His defiant responses are much quoted: I always footnoted, I always gave other writers credit, I made only a few tiny mistakes in thousands of superb pages. To hear Ambrose, the people he plagiarized should have been grateful that he mentioned their names in his popular books.
But Ambrose’s pilferage was much more than a slip-up in a “couple of books.” As the Weekly Standard, Forbes.com, and New York Times proved in one damning week last January, Ambrose plagiarized all the time. He did it when he was writing books quickly at the end of his career (the vast ripped-off swathes of recent best-seller The Wild Blue), and he did it when he was writing books slowly at the beginning of his career (his 1975 Crazy Horse and Custer steals from earlier Custer bios). He did it in more academic histories (Nixon: Ruin and Recovery)and in populist best sellers (Citizen Soldiers). He claims he footnoted the victims and merely forgot quotation marks, but no one reads footnotes, and by heisting memorable, vivid prose, Ambrose passed himself off as a better writer than he was. The hunt for Ambrose’s plagiarism was called off quickly because news broke of his lung cancer. But there’s good reason to believe that the shoplifting discovered in five books that were checked might also be found in the 30 other books that haven’t been. Plagiarists repeat themselves.
Judging by obituaries and by his recent sales, Ambrose’s readers have forgiven him, though it’s not clear they ever blamed him. I suspect that Ambrose is easily absolved because he and his work are so relentlessly upbeat. Ambrose, a self-proclaimed “hero worshiper,” kick-started the Greatest Generation mania with his World War II books. Band of Brothers, Citizen Soldiers, The Victors, Undaunted Courage—his books were paeans to great Americans. You’ll search Undaunted Courage long and hard for evidence that Meriwether Lewis wasn’t a saint or that the Lewis and Clark expedition wasn’t the most important and glorious event in early American history. He was not merely a “populist,” as he was always described. He was a cheerleader for America. (It’s no wonder Ambrose made his second home on the range in Montana: He himself was incapable of a discouraging word.) Criticizing Ambrose always seemed curmudgeonly, almost un-American, as though questioning his work was to question America itself. Implicit in his rebuttal of the plagiarism charges was the notion that his critics were bilious academic malcontents who resented his optimistic, patriotic spirit. Ambrose described his last book, a memoir titled To America: Personal Reflections of an Historian, this way: “I want to tell all the things that are right about America.” Not exactly a tough job, telling Americans how great they are.
Ambrose’s God-Bless-Americanism guaranteed him a devoted and loyal audience, one that didn’t care about his transgressions, either against his profession or his readers. And it was his readers who were most sinned against. Ambrose could write a rip-roaring good history, but by the end of his career, Ambrose was less historian than history factory. The Wild Blue is not merely a plagiarism-ridden book, but a shoddy, slapdash one. But that didn’t seem to matter. It told the inspiring, heroic story of World War II’s B-24 pilots, and that made it a best seller. Ambrose brought the good news, and that was enough.