Doris Goodwin on Obama’s Borrowings

One of these two people has committed plagiarism, and it isn’t Obama.

Doris Kearns Goodwin. Click image to expand.
Doris Kearns Goodwin

On the Feb. 26 Meet the Press, Tim Russert invited panelist Doris Kearns Goodwin to comment on Hillary Clinton’s attempt “to make an issue of Barack Obama borrowing words and phrases from [Massachusetts Gov.] Deval Patrick.” Unbelievably, Russert failed to note (and Goodwin failed to remind him of) an important source of Goodwin’s expertise on this topic: Six years ago, the Weekly Standard’s Bo Crader revealed that Goodwin had plagiarized Lynne McTaggart’s 1983 book Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times and a few other sources in her own 1987 biography, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.

In posing the question, Russert was fairly dismissive of the plagiarism charge, and so was Goodwin. I happen to agree that the Clinton attack was much ado about nothing, and Goodwin’s response approximated my own views:

You know, and I think what’s going on here is that it’s inevitable when candidates sit next to each other at debates, work with one another as Obama and, and Mr. Patrick had, you’re going to pick up patterns from one another, you know, especially during these debates. They’ve all picked up language from one another.  They’re like an old couple that begins to look like each other at the end of their lives, and they’ve, they’ve probably listened to their colleagues on the debating trail more than they have their wives or their spouses. So in some ways it’s good for the party to have the best lines that everybody in that party comes up with, the best ideas and patterns. Eventually one person will be the nominee. Let them evolve into each other as, as the time goes by, mush them all together.

A few moments further into the broadcast, Goodwin elaborated:

[J]ust as these politicians on the campaign trail are borrowing and absorbing patterns and evolving, so too speechwriters. They look at the best speeches in history. It’s inevitable that those patterns are going to get in their heads. And you know, we can’t make too much of this. This is the spoken word. It’s different from the written word, and it becomes part of what’s in there. As you said, there’s not that much in their heads anymore that’s coming in that’s new. So all that’s in there is what was there before.

I would take this argument even further and point out that speechwriters often win praise for lifting phrases from others. Michael Gerson made his name as a presidential speechwriter when he wrote these words for President Bush at the start of the Afghanistan war: “We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.” This was conscious theft from Winston Churchill’s “give us the tools” speech to the United States in February 1941. (“We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire.”) Commentators, in noting the borrowing, did so not to condemn Bush and his speechwriter but to congratulate them on their evocation of Churchillian resolve. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Toby Harnden called it “stirring.”

For this and other reasons, I think Obama’s borrowings are a pretty trivial issue. But if I had ever been accused of plagiarism, or had accused someone else of plagiarism, I would hesitate to venture any opinion about Obama’s recycling without first informing readers about my experience, so they could put my views into some context. As it happens, I haven’t experienced plagiarism from either end. Goodwin has experienced it from both.

In a Boston Globe interview in July 1993, Goodwin essentially accused Joe McGinniss of plagiarizing The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. She didn’t use the p-word itself, but she left little doubt that on the general topic, she was a hanging judge. The offending text was McGinniss’ The Last Brother, an interpretive biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. McGinniss’ book had no footnotes or index, but in an author’s note, McGinniss stated, “[I]n almost every instance, the quotations and other facts that form the basis of my interpretations have been drawn from published sources that I believe to be reliable. … The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys by Doris Kearns Goodwin … [was] especially helpful.” For Goodwin, this wasn’t good enough:

“There are times when” McGinniss “quotes me directly, and that is perfectly fine,” she said. “But there are times when he goes directly to a primary source that comes from my work, for example, my interviews with Lem Billings or Rose Kennedy. He just uses it flat out, without saying that it came from my work. Or he’ll go to a letter I dug out of the Kennedy library and present it as if, perhaps, he had found it.”There’s nothing wrong with an author building on material from a previous book. That’s the way history is built, as long as you credit the source, as long as you credit whoever does the legwork of finding old letters. … I just don’t understand why that wasn’t done. … If you know it was your work in digging out the material and bringing it to life, then you expect that another writer would acknowledge that. It’s inexplicable why it wasn’t done. …”

Goodwin was condemning McGinniss not for using particular sentences and phrases of herown without attribution, or even for using particular sentences and phrases of various Kennedys and Kennedy intimates without attribution to them. Rather, she was condemning McGinniss for failing to point out that particular sentences and phrases that McGinniss had emanating from various Kennedys and Kennedy intimates were the fruit of her interviews and her archival research. Goodwin, a Harvard-trained political scientist, was imposing a strict scholarly standard—author’s note be damned—presumably because this was the standard she followed herself.

Only it wasn’t. A decade later, Crader’s Weekly Standard piece showed that in the very same book—The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys—Goodwin had borrowed language from both primary and secondary sources. Sometimes these were footnoted and sometimes not. On publication, McTaggart had cried foul, her publisher had threatened a lawsuit, and a quiet settlement had been reached. Additional footnotes had been added to subsequent editions, along with new language added to the preface acknowledging Goodwin’s reliance on McTaggart’s book, now described as “the definitive biography of Kathleen Kennedy.” McTaggart had also received what she described to Crader as a “substantial monetary settlement, many times more than what is usually the case for this kind of thing.” In return, McTaggart had agreed to keep her mouth shut. No effort had been made to put quotation marks around the borrowed language; in effect, a legal deal had been struck to reduce but not eliminate Goodwin’s plagiarism.

Goodwin’s response to the Weekly Standard piece was a modified limited hangout. She fessed up to the borrowings but refused to admit that they constituted plagiarism, even though they met the definition of plagiarism provided to Harvard freshmen. Awkwardly, Goodwin was a Harvard Overseer at the time—in effect, a university trustee. The plagiarism revelations cost Goodwin a regular gig on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer and membership on the Pulitzer board. Goodwin stanched the bleeding  (according to the New York Times) by enlisting the aid of political consultant Bob Shrum. Some prominent historians came to Goodwin’s defense, arguing that because her borrowings were due to “inadvertence, not intent,” it was neither fair nor accurate to call them “plagiarism.” This statement contradicted not only Harvard’s definition of the p-word, but also those of the American Historical Association, the Modern Language Association’s MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, and just about every other reputable institution of higher learning in the United States. (“We surveyed college plagiarism standards around the country,” Rick Shenkman, editor of George Mason’s History News Network, told me in 2003. “[N]one of these standards provided an exemption for intent.”) In 2005, Goodwin published Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. The book was favorably reviewed and contained no apparent lapses of proper attribution. Had any occurred, I presume that someone would have squawked. On the other hand, so many Harvard professors had by then been found guilty of committing plagiarism that it’s possible the topic no longer interested anyone.

Granted, it would have been hard for Russert or Goodwin to cram all this information into a brief TV segment that was supposed to be about the sins of Barack Obama, not the sins of Doris Goodwin. But, as Liz Cox Barrett observed on the Columbia Journalism Review Web site, Russert could have said something like, “You’re no stranger to charges of plagiarism, Doris. How does Obama battle this? Does this stick?” Instead, Russert guided Goodwin past “the elephant in the studio.”

Doris Kearns Goodwin Plagiarism Archive:

Oct. 11, 2005: Goodwin’s Bluff

Sept. 28, 2004: More Harvard Plagiarism

Nov. 13, 2003: Historians Rewrite History

April 9, 2002: Goodwin, McTaggart, and That Book Review

March 18, 2002: Goodwin’s Tribe

March 4, 2002: The Many Boards of Doris Kearns Goodwin

Jan. 28, 2002: How To Curb the Plagiarism Epidemic

Jan. 22, 2002: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Liar