Goodwin’s Bluff

That corrected edition of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys? It never materialized.

In 2002 and 2003, I wrote a series of columns attacking Doris Kearns Goodwin for failing to concede that her much-publicized borrowings from author Lynne McTaggart constituted plagiarism. Goodwin had cited McTaggart in footnotes to the book in question, The Kennedys and the Fitzgeralds. Nonetheless, I pointed out, Goodwin’s appropriation of McTaggart’s language fit the definition of plagiarism that Harvard presented to incoming freshmen, and I noted the irony that Goodwin was just finishing out a term as a member of Harvard’s Board of Overseers. (After my column appeared, the Harvard Crimson called for Goodwin’s resignation.) Lest anyone conclude that Harvard’s definition of plagiarism was more rigorous than anyone else’s, I pointed out that Goodwin’s actions constituted plagiarism under the definitions endorsed by the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, and every other university surveyed during the controversy by Rick Shenkman of the History News Network.

Even though Goodwin rejected the term “plagiarism,” she made clear that she felt embarrassed by the borrowings. “At her behest, she said,” reported the New York Times in February 2002, “Simon & Schuster is taking the extraordinary step of destroying its inventory of paperback copies of the book to publish a thoroughly corrected edition this spring.”

All well and good, I noted, but why hadn’t Goodwin corrected The Kennedys and the Fitzgeralds more than a decade earlier, when the borrowings had been flagged to her by McTaggart, whose book Goodwin had plagiarized? Far from admitting Goodwin’s error and correcting the text, Simon & Schuster had paid McTaggart a fee to go away and keep her yap shut. (As I noted in 2002, the arrangement did not reflect especially well on McTaggart, who, prior to her money discussions with Goodwin, had published a review of Goodwin’s book that soft-pedaled the plagiarism accusation.) Goodwin was doing the scholarly thing only now that the plagiarism had been exposed by Bo Crader in the Weekly Standard. She was correcting the record because she had to.

That turns out not to be true. I have misrepresented Ms. Goodwin’s actions, and I owe her an apology.

In my earlier columns, I portrayed Ms. Goodwin as somewhat craven for correcting her faulty text only when bad publicity required it. What I should have written was that Ms. Goodwin was really, really craven for saying she was going to correct her faulty text and then, once the braying media pack scampered away, not doing it!

In an Oct. 6 Boston Globe column, Alex Beam revealed that just one week ago he managed to purchase a St. Martin’s paperback copy of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, and, despite Goodwin’s promise, the edition was not corrected. What gives?

“We did exactly what we said we were going to do,” says Simon & Schuster’s Hayes. ”We did pull all our copies as promised. We weren’t aware that other copy [from St. Martin’s Press] was out there.”

We weren’t aware that other copy was out there? Simon & Schuster and Doris Goodwin were collectively unaware that one or both of them had sold reprint rights to St. Martin’s Press? And that a paperback St. Martin’s edition had been published in 1991? And could still be purchased, in all its plagiaristic glory, with the mere click of a computer mouse? Um, that isn’t possible.

Hayes told Beam that Simon & Schuster did indeed pull its own copies off the shelves. But that new, corrected Simon & Schuster edition of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, promised for the spring of 2002, turns out to have been 100 percent bluff. Four springs have come and gone since Goodwin promised the corrected paperback edition. None has appeared. According to Beam, Hayes says it may be published after Goodwin’s publicity tour for her latest book, Team of Rivals. That would appear to suggest that the corrected volume also may not be published. Meanwhile, Goodwin has refused to acknowledge the plagiarisms in another book, No Ordinary Time, even though these were well-documented in August 2002 by the Los Angeles Times.

Look, I wish the woman well. Thomas Mallon (in a strange puffer of a magazine profile in the Atlantic) pronounced Team of Rivals, about Lincoln’s Cabinet, to be a wonderful piece of work, and Mallon’s a discerning literary critic. Mallon also happens to be kind of a hanging judge on the subject of plagiarism; he wrote a very smart book about it. But in his Atlantic profile of Goodwin, he declares himself at the outset to be bored with the topic of plagiarism, and he dismisses it pretty quickly. Mallon’s behavior reminds me of the huntsman’s in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Remember the huntsman? He’s dispatched by the Evil Queen to cut out the heart of Snow White. But he can’t do it because Snow White is so lovely and defenseless and kind (or is she just media-savvy?), so he lets her go and he brings the Evil Queen a stag’s heart instead. I sincerely doubt Goodwin would let anything like her previous plagiarisms mar her new book. But she hasn’t delivered on her promise to correct the plagiarisms in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, and I don’t feel I can ignore that.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Who’s the slickest of them all?