How Doris Kearns Goodwin Came to Resemble Lyndon Johnson

tags: plagiarism

Mr. Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.

I wonder how Doris Kearns, who ghostwrote much of Lyndon Johnson's 1971 memoirs, The Vantage Point, felt, upon its publication, to be listed in the preface as merely one of the"dozens of people" who"aided in the preparation, research, writing, and editing of this book." For Kearns was not just a ghostwriter. She was also Lyndon Johnson's mother confessor.

On summers and school vacations, the anti-war Harvard Ph.D. student and former White House fellow would be summoned to the dying president's ranch. She was reluctant to come to Texas at all. Nonetheless each morning at 5:30 Johnson would appear at her chamber door. She would sit in a bedside chair. Johnson would settle into her still-warm bed. The great man would relate to her for posterity the same bald-faced lie for the 31st time. She would smile patiently.

Working for President Johnson, she must have become accustomed to the petty and unconsidered exploitations that are part of the prerogatives of power. Powerful people expect to get away with behaving badly toward those less powerful than themselves. And this is the unspoken lesson of the revelations that Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose are shameless plagiarists.

Kearns—Doris Kearns Goodwin now, for her marriage to close Kennedy-family confidant Richard Goodwin—has become, since the publication of her important biography Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream (1976), powerful herself. It was in the aftermath of her second book, the 1987 bestseller The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, however, that Goodwin apparently entered a realm in her own mind where the rules of decency no longer applied to her. In 1993 she made a wounded remark that Joe McGinnis, the author of a new Kennedy book, had plagiarized her. McGinnis contends that he cited Goodwin appropriately in his book. Whatever the case, for Goodwin to call out McGinnis was a debased act, an alienated act, in itself. For when she did it, Goodwin acted as if she had not already privately acknowledged a few years earlier stealing from an author's work herself—Lynne McTaggart's Kathleen Kennedy (1993)—then bribing her to keep quiet about it.

We don't call such things bribes, of course; they are"settlements." Either way they are one of the more corrupt prerogatives of power in our time. They systematically allow the parties involved in a dispute to play the public for fools."In the original book there were some mistakes made," a spokesperson for The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys' publisher, Simon & Schuster, announced when the story of the plagiarism first broke this January. An"understanding" had been reached, he said.

Those mafia words, those Reagan words, those media words: Simon & Schuster clearly did not count on McTaggart to risk breaking the"settlement" by telling the world the embarrassing truth that she had been paid not to talk. They thought the fix was in. They seem to assume quiescence on the part of those they ask to eat shit. They expect a response more in keeping with Joe McGinnis's, who recently excused the wrong done to him by Goodwin by allowing that it was simply"one of the duties she was expected to perform as a member of the Kennedy extended family."

In any case, there were cultural gatekeepers willing to talk like corporate spokesmen on their behalf. Tom Oliphant, the Boston Globe columnist and Goodwin's NewsHour colleague, dismissed the plagiarism as a"screw-up that was acknowledged by the author the instant it was disclosed." (It wasn't: Goodwin's serial contrition on the subject largely stemmed from having to dig herself out from under previous dishonest statements of contrition.) Laurence Tribe, the Harvard muckety-muck law professor, defending Goodwin in the pages of The Harvard Crimson, sounded like he'd taken lessons from the guy who coined the term" collateral damage": Why all the fuss, he wrote, over the feelings of an author"with whom she had [already] settled the inadequate sourcing dispute?"

This is the language of actions alienated from consequences, of humans reduced to legal ciphers, of deeds judged on a sliding scale according to the characteristics already bestowed from above on those who commit them. Consider, pleads Tribe, that Goodwin is a"distinguished historian and public commentator." Allow, says the Simon & Schuster spokesperson, that the actions of Stephen Ambrose don't"affect his status as an important and original historian." Thus does power replace moral reckoning with moral bleaching, abetted by linguistic bleaching. It is sad that a question of restoring order to the house of language has to be carried out by way of so much cheapening of language.

The bleaching institutions should have to answer for it. That they aren't more often called to account in such matters is one of the consequences of the slow, steady takeover of the mores and values of our society by corporations and other forms of cartelized power. But that is not to absolve the individuals involved. What Ambrose and Goodwin did were also intimate acts.

Historians must write in the grip of an abiding fear. Composing a paragraph one imagines two audiences: the everyreaders, and the three or four people who know more about what you are writing in a particular paragraph than you do, who have read any book you're inclined to plagiarize, who, for God's sake, may have written the book you're inclined to plagiarize. It is an existential matter. Goodwin originally excused herself by claiming she replaced her messy practice of taking notes in longhand—which she says accounted for the Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys error—with a bang-up computer system, once she learned about her plagiarism problem in the late '80s (a lie in any event, because she later acknowledged that she had not changed her system during the production of her 1994 book No Ordinary Time). But what Goodwin really did had nothing to do with long yellow legal pads or fancy new footnoting software: She willfully banned those three or four super-readers from her mind as she composed each page.

I'm fascinated by what it takes for a historian to drop this fear—the fear of being found out. Think of the books Stephen Ambrose, the more wanton of the two plagiarists, ripped off. Some were popular books of a generation or three ago; some were recent but obscure; some were books written by those once prominent but now consigned to oblivion. For there are after all millions of books, and most of them are irrelevant to us. But to the historian who uses them for sources, how could they be anything but sacred? They are your superego, the very building blocks of your character.

I am a historian. My book is about the 1964 Barry Goldwater election. And the thought of a midnight knock on my door from this guy named John Kessel (who may or may not still be alive), who published a fine academic study in 1968 called The Goldwater Coalition: Republican Strategies in 1964, accusing me of doing him any dishonor, sends chills down my spine.

How could it not—as long as I consider myself a member of a community with responsibilities to one another, and not just a law unto myself? And that is what distinguishes our Goodwins and Ambroses from the normal run of lazy, insecure, stupid, or harried plagiarists—usually students—or from people who intend fraud. I believe Goodwin and Ambrose when they say they acted unintentionally. Their word,"unintentionally," suggests a habit that has slipped, as if it no longer matters enough to remember. The crime is not fraud; it is instead an unconscious acclimation to arrogance—a Lyndon Johnson-like kind of arrogance where you don't even realize when you are using people.

Some especially prominent writers appear to be told—by the publishers to whom they are extraordinarily valuable, by TV producers, by cultural gatekeepers who answer to a friendly duty to protect their own—that their shit smells like roses. And apparently they believe it. And it apparently lets them alienate themselves from what they actually do as human beings. They refer instead to something that has happened to them, like the weather: Goodwin recently called the events a"media storm," and Ambrose refers on his Web site to the"Recent Media Controversy." In March, Goodwin's letter of resignation from judging the Pulitzer Prize said:"Because I am so distracted by the media focus on my work, I do not feel capable of giving the considerable time needed to make the proper judgments on the many books and newspaper articles that deserve our full and complete understanding."

It smells to me like a certain kind of"understanding"—one of those corrupting corporate settlements in which some price is extracted from the wrongdoer in exchange, so no party need emerge embarrassed, for withdrawing the accusation. The proper response in such a letter, the human response, should be abject humiliation. The actual response—and the transcendent sin—is committing public relations instead.

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