Doris Goodwin on Obama's Borrowings
One of these two people has committed plagiarism, and it isn't Obama.
"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
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Doris Kearns Goodwin by Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press.