Blogs > Cliopatria > Presidents and Plagiarism

Dec 8, 2006 9:33 am


Presidents and Plagiarism



On a day when former President Jimmy Carter was nominated for a third time for a Grammy Award, my virtual son, Andrew Ackerman, called to ask if Carter is the first President or former President of the United States to be accused of plagiarism. To the best of my knowledge, I said, he may be.* Many other pols have been accused of it: Albania's Sali Berisha, Delaware's Joe Biden, Great Britain's Alastair Campbell, Turkey's Omer Dincer, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Australia's Mark Latham, and Russia's Vladimir Putin, to name a few. But Jimmy Carter may be the first President of the United States to have been accused of plagiarism. How about it, A. Lincoln Blog? American Presidents Blog? Millard Fillmore's Bathtub? POTUS? Eric? KC? Michael? Sean? Do we have a first?

Even if this is a first accusation, I wouldn't be surprised if our new technological capacities uncover earlier instances of presidential plagiarism. Mind you, I'm not pronouncing on Carter's guilt or innocense. There's talk of the possibility of legal action in the matter. If his critics don't have good evidence, I suppose Carter could countersue for defamation. And I haven't seen the texts. But legal action would almost certainly focus on issues of copyright violation rather than plagiarism, as such. The matter would, likely, be settled out of court, but if the alleged plagiarism is extensive, it could force the publishing house to withdraw the book. Somehow, I don't think it will come to that. I'm willing to accept the judgment of Eric Alterman, who is a sympathetic reader of Carter, that Palestine: Peace, not Apartheid, is not a very good book. But I'm also reminded of earlier suspicions that accusations of plagiarism may be highly political. When we have chosen to do so, even the academy has quietly ignored it and loudly trumpeted it when we chose to.

*Update: On the indebtedness of John F. Kennedy's Why England Slept and Profiles in Courage to books by Winston Churchill, see: Richard Reeves,"President Kennedy: Profile of Power," Booknotes.org, 12 December 1993. Wonder why Harvard never considered revoking Kennedy's undergraduate degree and contrast the collaboration of Georgetown's Jules Davids in Kennedy's knock-off of Churchill with Kenneth Stein's hinting at legal action against Carter. Hat tip to my other virtual son, Chris Richardson, for the reminder. Are there other known examples of presidential plagiarism?


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Ed Darrell - 12/15/2006

"Plagiarize, plagiarize! Don't let anything evade your eyes!"

Tom Lehrer sang it -- did he borrow it?

"Oh, they just stole from me -- but I steal from everybody," Woody Guthrie, as attributed by Pete Seeger.

"Plagiarism is the foundation for all culture." Pete Seeger


Ed Darrell - 12/15/2006

Carter has a response in the current Newsweek.


Oscar Chamberlain - 12/8/2006

Isn't it largely the resopnsibility of the publisher to double check illustrations and maps? That doesn't mean Carter did not take it himself, but it's possible that the growing sloppiness in the publishing industry generally may be part of the problem in this case.

Again, we are all arguing in response to accusations, not in response to documentation.


Andrew Ackerman - 12/8/2006

Dennis Ross says Carter stole his maps: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,235422,00.html

Sounds petty, actually. But there's probably more.


Ralph E. Luker - 12/8/2006

We could do that. Was it three or four Harvard Law profs tagged for plagiarism and got off scot free?


Jonathan Dresner - 12/8/2006

Harvard seems to specialize in it.

Oh, please. Why don't we spend the next decade debating UCLA scholars' works in every public venue available and see if their works stand up to such scrutiny?


Ralph E. Luker - 12/8/2006

Your point, that at a certain level these things have been done shamelessly, is well taken. There's no indication that JFK was embarrassed to accept the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for a ghostwritten book. Harvard seems to specialize in it.


Alan Allport - 12/8/2006

OK. But whether or not Kennedy/Sorensen lifted Churchillian titbits, it's still worth keeping in mind that the ur-source wasn't so pure either. And Churchill got the Nobel in part for his unacknowleded appropriations! (Some extracts from WSC's History of the Second World War which reviewers cooed over at the time as 'quintessential Churchill' were, we now know, wholly written by others.)


Ralph E. Luker - 12/8/2006

Yes. The major charge against PIC is ghostwriting, but Reeves claims that there are lines from the Churchill books in both Kennedy books without attribution.


Ralph E. Luker - 12/8/2006

Oh, I think that's right. But Stein does risk a huge public embarrassment -- if not a law suit -- if he can't, now, show evidence to back his charges. It's hard to imagine someone in his position running out on that limb without having the goods in hand. It will be interesting to see if other Carter critics -- i.e., Alan Dershowitz -- make much of the plagiarism charge.


Alan Allport - 12/8/2006

Alan, Isn't ghostwriting a step above the ignominy of plagiarism?

Perhaps, but isn't the major allegation about PIC that it was ghostwritten by Ted Sorensen?


Ralph E. Luker - 12/8/2006

The other thing is that, while presidents did occasionally use the contributions of others in their public speech -- Hamilton and Madison contributed to Washington's Farewell Address; Seward to Lincoln's First Inaugural Address; and John Hay apparently drafted some of Lincoln's correspondence -- there were no speechwriters for the President prior to Calvin Coolidge.


Hiram Hover - 12/8/2006

Thanks, Ralph - I missed that in the email. But in the absence of details, I'm still not ready to put him in the category of Joe Biden quite yet.


Ralph E. Luker - 12/8/2006

Alan, Isn't ghostwriting a step above the ignominy of plagiarism?


Ralph E. Luker - 12/8/2006

Hiram, Here's a passage from Stein's e-mail, sent to many parties, about his resignation: "it is replete with factual errors, copied materials not cited, superficialities, glaring omissions, and simply invented segments." "... copied materials not cited ..." could, I suppose, refer to something other than plagiarism, but it points in that direction.


Hiram Hover - 12/8/2006

so much for my skills in html. But you get the idea.


Hiram Hover - 12/8/2006

Stein didn't mention the charge of plagiarism in his email, did he? I've seen it raised only in interviews, and then, he refused to provide any specifics.

Stein claims to be preparing an article for publication that will document the charges, and I look forward to seeing it. But until then, I have to regard the charges as unbased--tho perhaps not baseless.


Alan Allport - 12/8/2006

But why stop there? As David Reynolds has recently revealed, Churchill attributed to himself whole chapters of his history of the Second World War that were in fact written by members of his research staff. Does anyone in a position of power ever, truly, write a book on their own?

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