Doris Goodwin on Obama's Borrowings
One of these two people has committed plagiarism, and it isn't Obama.
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:
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.