As History Repeats Itself, the Scholar Becomes the Story

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In early January, an anonymous letter arrived at the Washington, D.C., office of the Weekly Standard. It was addressed to Executive Editor Fred Barnes, who had written a piece suggesting that historian Stephen E. Ambrose’s book about World War II bombers contained some passages “barely distinguishable” from another author’s work.

The mystery correspondent opened with a salute, saying Barnes had been “quite right” to expose Ambrose, and then moved on to the main business of the missive--ratting out another celebrity historian: “I’ve long been concerned by several instances of plagiarism I noted long ago in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s ‘The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.’ I believe she ought to be called to account, just as Professor Ambrose has.”

Passages from the Goodwin book and other Kennedy histories were set down for comparison, beginning with a three-sentence snippet that appeared to be borrowed from a biography of Kathleen Kennedy by Lynne McTaggart, a London-based writer. McTaggart, it would develop, had accused Goodwin long ago of “slavishly” copying her work, a complaint that led to a secret legal settlement.



... her closest friends [went the McTaggart passage] assumed she and Billy were ‘semiengaged.’ On the day of the party reports of a secret engagement were published in the Boston papers ... The truth was that the young couple had reached no such agreement.

... her closest friends [echoed the Goodwin text, published four years after McTaggart’s] assumed she and Billy were semi-engaged. On the day of the party, reports of a secret engagement were published in the Boston papers ... The truth was that the young couple had reached no such agreement.


Four more examples from other books followed. Titles, publishers and page numbers were noted, providing Barnes--or, as it turned out, a Weekly Standard research assistant--with a ready-mix case to whip up against the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian.

The tipster, identified in the letter as an “academic historian living in the Northeastern U.S.,” closed on a goading note: “Mr. Barnes, I am not sending this tip to any other press outlet for the time being. I’ll wait to see what you do with it.”

And with that it began, a literary dust-up that would engulf Goodwin, one of the nation’s most popular and publicly visible historians. Whether her work was tainted would be debated in newspaper columns, on academic Web sites and on the very talking-head television shows where Goodwin so often played the role of quick-draw historian--always ready with a charmingly told anecdote about how Rutherford B. Hayes or Woodrow Wilson dealt in his White House days with whatever dilemma was confronting the current occupant.

Goodwin was not without defenders. Some came to see in her story one more instance of the machinery of American fame lifting up someone only to drop her down again. Professional jealousy received frequent mention as a motive driving her detractors. At the same time, there were academicians who took from the affair a lesson on the perils of assembly-line scholarship. Still others painted it as part of a larger trend in lost standards and accountability, casting Goodwin as a sort of Kenneth L. Lay of letters.


In her own mind, Goodwin was not--is not--a plagiarist. She takes pains to avoid the very word, referring to the McTaggart business as “that mistake” or “this thing I have done” or simply “it.” In an interview, the only time she uttered the word “plagiarism” was to deny committing it in the Kennedy book: “You know, at the time the book was written, it absolutely required intent to deceive in order to be plagiarism. And no one is claiming that. No one is claiming that there was any intent.”

Her defense has been that she was guilty only of a “mechanical breakdown,” a misdemeanor of sloppy footnoting and subpar paraphrasing in what was her first attempt at a major history. She also maintains that after the Kennedy book, her methodology was cleaned up, so that when it came to “No Ordinary Time,” her Pulitzer-winning history of Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt in wartime, “things got checked. We knew. We’d been through this.”

Nonetheless, an examination of that book against a handful of the hundreds of texts listed in the bibliography did turn up instances of what appear to be parallel language usage and similarly constructed sentences. For example, on Page 635 of Joseph Lash’s “Eleanor and Franklin,” published in 1971, this passage is found:


... so Eleanor composed herself, returned to the living room, and said in her most disarming manner: “It is kind of Mr. Aldrich to offer to be chairman, but is it not better from the point of view of geography to have someone from the Middle West?” At that, she turned to Marshall Field; she knew it was a bothersome responsibility, she said, but could he accept the chairmanship? Somewhat startled, the Chicago philanthropist and stalwart New Dealer did.


While on Page 99 of Goodwin’s book, published in 1994:


... Eleanor quickly composed herself, walked back into the living room, and said in her most disarming manner, “It was kind of Mr. Aldrich to offer to be chairman, but is it not better from the point of view of geography to have someone from the Middle West?” At that, she turned immediately to Chicago philanthropist and New Deal loyalist Marshall Field; she knew it would be a bother for him, but could he accept? Though caught somewhat off guard, Field gave his assent ...”


Now, is this adequate paraphrasing, describing how Eleanor “walked back” rather than “returned” to the living room, and so forth? Or are quotation marks required to credit Lash’s prose? Goodwin does include a footnote in the back of the book--99 “It was kind ... “: Lash, Eleanor and Franklin, p.635--but one that might be read as a reference to Eleanor Roosevelt’s remark, and not all the framing language.


Over such picked nits and nuances are battles over plagiarism waged. Cases of clear-cut, wholesale appropriations are rare. Far more common are disputes over what Thomas Mallon, author of “Stolen Words,” a definitive work on the subject, has termed “tweezered rip-offs.” A phrase here, a sentence there: Pile on enough of these, and at some inexact point what might be excused as mere sloppiness begins to generate charges of plagiarism.

For her part, Goodwin emphatically insists that the Roosevelt book, above passage included, “meets the highest standards of historical scholarship,” adding: “... the standard to be met in every instance is providing appropriate credit to the source from which this material was obtained. How this is mechanically done differs from author to author and publisher to publisher. But I have complete confidence in the method I have chosen.”


The Writer’s Story Took ‘On a Life of Its Own’

On a midsummer morning, Goodwin was perched on the edge of a sofa in her 19th century farmhouse a few miles outside Concord, absent-mindedly picking at a rubber band as she recounted her run through the literary grinder. Six months had passed since her story broke, months that Goodwin complained might have been devoted to her new history of Abraham Lincoln and his Cabinet but instead were “lost” working to salvage her reputation.

For reasons she cannot quite identify, her story took “on a life of its own,” became “a frenzy.” Perhaps it was her public visibility. Perhaps it was the ever-churning nature of the modern news cycle. She doesn’t know.

Seated across the room in an easy chair was her husband, Richard Goodwin, a former speechwriter and political confidant of the Kennedys, Lyndon B. Johnson and others. Married for 26 years, the Goodwins are a couple who in conversation tend to finish one another’s sentences, just as at the keyboard they help each other polish their prose. At one point in the conversation, Doris Goodwin stopped, searching for a literary reference.

“What’s that Hemingway quote?” she asked Richard Goodwin.

“Everyone is broken by life ...” he prompted.

“Everyone is broken by life,” she said, “but some people are stronger in the broken places.”


“Afterwards some people are stronger,” he corrected.

“Afterwards some people are stronger,” she repeated.

In the early months, she said, when the Sunday New York Times was publishing a parody expose of “Wait Till Next Year,” her baseball memoir, and the Harvard Crimson was demanding her ouster from the university’s Board of Overseers, and assorted universities were debating the propriety of allowing her to appear on their campuses, “I couldn’t see how it could end. It just kept going on, day after day.”

The historian soon found herself saddled with punishments peculiar to the realm of celebrity scholars. Several of her paid speaking engagements were canceled. She was disinvited from her place on public television’s “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.” Her seat on the prestigious board that awards Pulitzers was put in question. A friend described her as “almost in a state of disbelief, shock, depression.”

She nodded toward her husband: “He was absolutely certain it would end, and I would be all right. He kept telling me, ‘Your reputation would be basically what it was on the basis of a lifetime, not on the basis of just this one thing.’ ” He also reminded her that this wasn’t her first high-profile pickle.

“When I would say to Dick, ‘You know, I have never been through anything like this before,’ he’d say, ‘Well, you know, you were.’ ”

Goodwin’s first dip in the waters of infamy came in 1967, when, having received a White House fellowship, she was photographed dancing with Lyndon Johnson at a reception. The story turned on the fact that the president’s dance partner, then Doris Kearns, had just co-written a piece for the New Republic under the headline: “How to Remove L.B.J. in 1968.”

Later, in the early 1970s, Kearns and Richard Goodwin, lovers but not yet married, set off a literary scandal that attracted national media attention. It involved a “psychobiography” that Kearns was writing about Johnson, based in part on intimate conversations they’d had on his ranch in Texas, and a decision to bring Goodwin aboard as a co-author.


Their plan was to expand what had begun as a scholarly work--intended to help secure for her a tenured professorship at Harvard University--break with a smaller publishing house and sell the book elsewhere, for about five times the money. As the dispute grew, the story oozed outward to include speculation in print about whether Kearns might have had an affair with Johnson.

Sally Quinn, flying at her highest as a feature writer in the Washington Post’s Style section, wrote a lively, at times almost embarrassingly explicit, account of the chaos that had come to Kearn’s love and literary life. The piece ran for what seemed like forever, and it included a rather tart summation:

“Kearns has always gotten what she wanted--and made it look as if she didn’t even try. She got elected student-body president at Colby College in Maine, got the best grades, got the best beaux, got into Harvard, got a White House fellowship, got Lyndon Johnson, got her Ph.D, got her professorship at Harvard, got her book, got author Richard Goodwin and got Goodwin to collaborate with her on the book. Those are all things she wanted, or thought she wanted when she got them.”

At one point in the story, the then-32-year-old Kearns is quoted as saying: “I really believe that Johnson was picking a person he wanted to write about him. People say he was in love with me and things like that. Partly that’s true. But it was much more serious than that.”

In short, it was the sort of ink that would make anybody with a jot of modesty want to hole up in the back stacks of a public library for a decade or so. Which is pretty much what Kearns did. At Harvard, questions had been raised about Richard Goodwin’s participation in the book, also about the hiring of a fiction writer to help edit the manuscript. Her certain candidacy for tenure became clouded and a source of controversy on campus.

Just as the question seemed about to come to a head, however, the matter disappeared from public view: Kearns decided not to press the issue. After accepting an untenured associate professorship, she eventually left the university and set out on her own as a writer. Along the way, she married Goodwin, gave birth and finished the Johnson book. It carried only her byline, and it became a bestseller.


Looking back, Doris Goodwin would say it worked out well. She built a life for herself here that allowed her to both rear children and write. She became a fixture at the Concord library, scribbling away in longhand on her Kennedy book, shelves of biographies and other reference sources just a few steps away. And when the book came out, she told the Washington Post that her wild ride of a decade before had taught her something important about the nature of notoriety:

“I saw how you could be in the newspapers every day for a few days and then it was gone. All that people remembered was that you had been in the papers. They didn’t remember what was pro or con about it.”

In fact, Goodwin said, until a question about the Quinn article came up in connection with this piece, “I had forgotten about it.”

Published in 1987, the Kennedy book was well received. Among the reviewers was Lynne McTaggart, who wrote that she was impressed with Goodwin’s scholarship, but who did not write that some of the prose seemed awfully familiar. “I wrote a kind review,” she recalled many years later in the New York Times, “then hired a copyright lawyer.”

Doris Goodwin was not keen on talking much about her Harvard scrape or anything else in her past, and this includes the McTaggart business; she prefers, she said, to keep focused on the future. Late in the interview, and with a wary reluctance, she addressed the problems with “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.”

The 932-page book had been under construction for a decade, but like so many big projects it ended in a “real rush.” Goodwin was writing final passages, while others edited them and a researcher made last checks of the manuscript against the source material, to ensure that paraphrases and footnotes were in order.


Goodwin said she had read the McTaggart book herself: “I took the notes. And they were in my longhand. And then, when they got into the text, that was the mistake.”

“It wasn’t cross-checked,” her husband interjected.

“It wasn’t cross-checked,” she agreed.

This was the researcher’s task?

“I mean again, I don’t want to say that,” she said. “I mean, that was her responsibility to cross-check it, but she didn’t. But that doesn’t matter. It’s mine. I’m the one.”

Goodwin made it clear that she was uncomfortable mentioning the researcher’s role. Still, she said, sounding exasperated, it’s all “so crazy ... the fact that that check wasn’t made. You know, I mean, it would have been so simple to either paraphrase these things a little better or put them in quotes. I mean, it’s not like I wouldn’t have wanted to do that.”

“So simple,” she added. “It would have taken, you know, an hour.”


Goodwin Denies Intending to Copy Anyone’s Work

After the Weekly Standard published the parallel passages contained in the anonymous letter, along with several more examples dug up by editorial assistant Bo Crader, Goodwin joined Ambrose front and center in a lineup of historians accused of plagiarism or other ethical lapses.

Ambrose, best known for his World War II narratives, was minimal in his response to the charges, telling the New York Times: “I tell stories.... I am not writing a Ph.D. dissertation.” Goodwin, however, mounted a more dogged defense, convinced that once she explained herself, the matter would drop from public view.

“Though my footnotes repeatedly cited Ms. McTaggart’s work,” she wrote in Time magazine, “I failed to provide quotation marks for phrases that I had taken verbatim, having assumed that these phrases, drawn from my notes, were my words, not hers.”


“There is absolutely no intent,” she insisted on PBS’ “NewsHour,” “to appropriate anyone else’s words as my own, which is what plagiarism is.”

“All that really happened,” she told a Boston Globe reporter, “was she sent me a letter saying not all the passages that relied on her work had been as fully footnoted as she would have liked. I agreed with her.”

With such comments, Goodwin at times made her dealings with McTaggart sound almost amicable, a back-and-forth between authors that might have been conducted on Hallmark cards. In reality, what McTaggart had lobbed Goodwin’s way in 1988 was more like the legal equivalent of a Scud missile.

Prepared by a powerhouse New York law firm, with dozens of pages of attachments, the eight-page civil complaint accused Goodwin and her publishers of “massive and pervasive” copyright infringement, done in “willful, wanton and in utter disregard” of McTaggart’s rights.

Goodwin’s book, it hammered on, “slavishly copies not only McTaggart’s words, but also her distinctive style, narrative structure, and selection, coordination and arrangement of facts and events....Defendants have copied passages appearing on 91 of the 248 pages of McTaggart’s work. At least 45 of the 94 pages in Goodwin’s book that discuss Kathleen Kennedy contain infringing material.”

To back this up, side-by-side comparisons of scores of passages were attached:


Hardly a day passed by [went a McTaggart passage] without a photograph in the papers of little Teddy taking a snapshot with his Brownie held upside down, or the five Kennedy children lined up on a train or bus.


Hardly a day passed [reported the Goodwin text] without a newspaper photograph of little Teddy taking a snapshot with his camera held upside down, or the five Kennedy children lined up on a train or on a bus.


And so it went, across 30 pages of what was marked “Exhibit A.” Some examples were less persuasive than others. In many instances, Goodwin indeed had given credit to the McTaggart book in footnotes: Why would she cite McTaggart’s book even once if she intended to plunder it?

The complaint anticipated this defense: “By including isolated footnotes to McTaggart’s work, Goodwin intentionally and falsely implies that sections of her work not so footnoted are the product of her own original research and writing and are not derived from McTaggart’s work.”

The complaint was settled before it was ever filed in court: Footnotes would be added in future printings and language squirted into the preface, identifying McTaggart’s book as “a primary source for information on Kathleen Kennedy.”

In the text itself, however, quotation marks were not placed around verbatim lifts--apparently because of difficulties this presented for the printers. McTaggart received what she called a “substantial” amount of money. A final condition was that the settlement would remain confidential.

Critics have contended that by not bracketing the language borrowed from McTaggart in quotation marks, and by keeping the settlement quiet, plagiarism in a sense was recommitted with every new copy sold of “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.” Only after the matter came to light this year was the book pulled from shelves, to be mended with appropriate quote marks.


Goodwin said she was convinced by lawyers for publisher Simon & Schuster that it would be simpler to settle, even though “they thought we actually had a good case.” At the time of the settlement, she already was wading into her research of the Roosevelts.

“No Ordinary Time” would become a bestseller, just like the Kennedy and Johnson books before it, and be praised by both popular reviewers and academic historians. At least two distinguished historians in their reviews could not resist the phrase “ ‘No Ordinary Time’ is no ordinary book.” (Note to the plagiarism police: These things happen.)

The Roosevelt book emerged just as public television was broadcasting a Ken Burns baseball documentary that prominently featured Goodwin. Growing up in Rockville Centre, N.Y., the little girl known to her neighbors as “Ragmop” had been an avid Brooklyn Dodgers fan. Later she would transfer her affection to the Boston Red Sox.

She talked about her baseball memories on the documentary, and on the book tour her audiences often seemed more interested in hearing about Jackie Robinson than Eleanor Roosevelt. This prompted her to write “Wait Till Next Year,” a memoir about baseball and coming of age in suburban New York during the Cold War. Published in 1997, it was yet another bestseller.

By now, Goodwin was a regular on television, providing historical perspectives on PBS and NBC throughout the Clinton-Lewinsky mess, the Bush-Gore electoral standoff and on through to the aftermath of Sept. 11. She had developed a television persona: She was Ragmop all grown up and educated, hair parted unevenly down the middle, makeup minimal, her manner warm, wise, accessible. She exhibited a knack for remembering stories and telling them well.

As her public profile increased, Goodwin did not seem burdened by the scholarly misstep buried in her past: “It went away from my mind. It was not as if I were thinking, ‘Oh my God, there’s this thing I have done back then that someday will haunt me.’ I hardly ever thought about it again.”


Indeed, she acted like anything but a historian humbled by a previous attack on her professional integrity. In 1993, for instance, she chided author Joe McGinnis for lifting from her Kennedy book: “He just uses it flat out, without saying that it came from my work.” He denied the charge.


Similarities Between Plagiarists, Kleptomaniacs

Cases where plagiarism is alleged--whether they eventually prove out or not--tend to unfold along uncannily similar lines. Accused plagiarists, for example, as Thomas Mallon and others have noted, often are writers who have not been shy about accusing others of the offense. And when caught, they almost always fall back first on a defense of sloppy notetaking.

“Plagiarists,” Mallon observed in his 1989 book, “take refuge in their notebooks with roughly the same frequency that scoundrels wrap themselves in the flag.”

Should the notebook gambit fail, the accused will duck behind his or her footnotes, protesting that it would be ludicrous to credit a book and then crib from it; that would be giving the game away.

“As it develops,” the late Peter Shaw, an English professor at Stony Brook University, wrote in a 1982 paper for the academic journal American Scholar, “giving the game away proves to be the rule rather than the exception among plagiarists. Both in the commission of the original act and in the fantastic excuses that follow it, plagiarism is often calculated above all to result in detection.”

Shaw found similarities between plagiarists and kleptomaniacs. The pattern, he wrote, “begins with the plagiarist’s act of stealing material of the sort that his talent and intelligence would appear to make unnecessary for him. There follows his strewing of clues to bring about detection. After detection, the plagiarist offers excuses that testify to the unconscious motivation of his original act, though ordinarily without acknowledging either its breach of ethics or its obvious self-destructiveness.”


Recidivism also appears to be part of the package. Plagiarism, Mallon found, “is something people may do for a variety of reasons but almost always something they do more than once.”

Once allegations about the Kennedy book surfaced, curiosity about Goodwin’s Roosevelt book inevitably was aroused. There were anonymous e-mails circulated on the Web urging reporters to examine the Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Goodwin herself put researchers to work double-checking the book, and a Washington law firm that represented her pronounced it clean.

For this article, The Times contracted with an outside reader to select a half-dozen or so of the books listed by Goodwin as source materials and simply follow the footnotes, randomly reading passages of “No Ordinary Time” against the other works. The process, which consumed roughly one full workweek, produced nearly three dozen instances where phrases and sentences in Goodwin’s book resembled the words of other authors.

To list a few:


Grace Tully, “F.D.R.: My Boss”:

Near the end of the dinner Missy arose from her chair to tell me she felt ill and very tired. I urged her to excuse herself and go upstairs to bed but she insisted she would stay until the Boss left. He did so about 9:30 and within a few minutes Missy suddenly wavered and fell to the floor unconscious.


Near the end of the dinner, Grace Tully recalled, Missy arose from her chair, saying she felt ill and very tired. Tully urged her to excuse herself and retire to her room, but she insisted on staying until the president left. He did so at 9:30 p.m. and, moments later, Missy let out a piercing scream, wavered and fell to the floor unconscious.

Footnote: 242, Missy arose: Grace Tully, “F.D.R.: My Boss”


Robert E. Sherwood: “Roosevelt and Hopkins”:

At Guantanamo Bay, a large stock of Cuban cigars was purchased. At Jamaica, St. Lucia and Antigua, the President entertained British colonial officials and their ladies at lunch. Off Eleuthera Island he was visited by the Duke of Windsor ...



At Guantanamo Bay the cruiser pulled into the dock for an hour’s stop so that a large stock of Cuban cigars could be carried on board. At Jamaica, St. Lucia and Antigua, the president hosted British colonial officials and their wives at lunch. At Eleuthera Island he was joined by the Duke of Windsor.

Footnote: 192, At Guantanamo Bay, etc.: Robert Sherwood.


Lillian Rogers Parks, with Frances Spatz Leighton, “The Roosevelts: A Family in Turmoil”:

The next morning, when I arrived at the third floor sewing room, across from Missy’s suite, a distraught nurse was outside her door.


The next morning, when White House maid Lillian Parks arrived at the third-floor sewing room across from Missy’s bedroom, a distraught nurse was in the hallway just outside Missy’s door.

Footnote: 243, She’s gotten up ...”: Parks, “Family in Turmoil”


From Hugh Gregory Gallagher, “FDR’s Splendid Deception”:

If, as happened once or twice, one of its members sought to violate it and try to sneak a picture of the President in his chair, one or another of the older photographers would “accidentally” knock the camera to the ground or otherwise block the picture.


If, as occasionally happened, one of the members of the press corps sought to violate the code by sneaking a picture of the president looking helpless, one of the older photographers would “accidentally” block the shot or gently knock the camera to the ground.

Footnote: 587 “accidentally”: Hugh Gregory Gallagher, “FDR’s Splendid Deception.”


Given a copy of the complete list, Goodwin gave specific responses to several of the examples and said that each could be defended. She added generally that in every instance her footnotes--organized by page number and anchored to specific phrases contained within a given paragraph--made clear the original source of the material.


“There are thousands of footnotes in this book,” she said, “and they are really good footnotes.”

As for any parallel language reflected in the passages, she said: “As long as a person is credited,” on occasion there is “leeway to use some of the words. Just using individual words now and then, and when it is clear where it is coming from, that is what paraphrasing is.” Moreover, she said, in some instances, references to the source were included in the text.

In some cases, she said, “if you had the whole thing quoted, you would lose the flow of the narrative.” In others, the language in question was simply a common expression--how many ways are there to describe, say, a “white linen suit” or a camera being knocked “to the ground”?

And in still others, Goodwin said, sequential action was being described, and to tamper with the language would be to risk inaccuracy. She offered as an example of this the similarities between her description of Roosevelt’s Guantanamo Bay visit and that of Sherwood: “This chronology and structure had to be adhered to in order to describe the visit accurately. Furthermore, the end-note anchor phrase of ‘At Guantanamo Bay, etc.’ clearly alerts the reader that general information about the Guantanamo Bay is derived from Sherwood’s book.”

Finally, Goodwin said: “The most important thing I keep coming back to, and what most people would agree with, is that the standard to be met in every instance is providing appropriate credit to the source.”

And that, she said, she has done.

There is, as it turns out, less than perfect agreement in the writerly ranks about what constitutes plagiarism. In response to the Goodwin and Ambrose matters, historians have bickered about plagiarism for months now on a Web site called HistoryNewsNetwork ( Viewpoints range from those who believe a single stolen word is one too many to those who argue that originality is a dead concept, that all words and ideas are derivative.


There are relativity advocates, who hold that it’s unfair not to take into account how many words in a book were not stolen. By such reasoning, the more conservative types respond, shoplifters might be given credit for all merchandise they didn’t pocket before waltzing out of the mall.

The American Historical Assn. defines plagiarism as “the expropriation of another author’s text, and the presentation of it as one’s own.” In 1990, the association deleted the phrase “with an intent to deceive” from its definition, depriving plagiarists of their most common defense.

As for the business of footnotes and quotation marks--that’s a whole subset of debate points. In this regard, the anonymous letter to the Weekly Standard included a rather helpful guide to the rules of the road, quoting from the Harbrace College Handbook’s eighth edition:

“Plagiarism is literary theft. When you copy the words of another, be sure to put those words inside quotation marks and to acknowledge the source with a footnote. When you paraphrase the words of another, use your own words and your own sentence structure, and be sure to give a footnote citing the source of the idea. A plagiarist often merely changes a few words or rearranges the words in the source. As you take notes and as you write your paper, be especially careful to avoid plagiarism. Unless you are quoting directly, avoid entirely the sentence patterns of the source.”

The bold-faced points of emphasis, it should be noted, all were added by the letter’s author, whoever that is.


The Public Often Responds With a Collective Yawn

In his American Scholar piece, Shaw described one last piece of the plagiarism pattern: “After an initial flurry of discussion, most charges of plagiarism tend to disappear from public view.” Sympathy begins to flow to the plagiarist and away from the plagiarized, followed by “uneasiness, ambiguity” on the part of those who might judge the lapsed scholar. Why?


Perhaps would-be accusers are wary of pressing too hard out of fear of inviting similar scrutiny of their own work. Or maybe digging through the borrowings at some point begins to seem too messy, too unseemly--the literary equivalent of looking too closely at a freeway wreck’s carnage. Or maybe what Mallon calls “the giggle factor” kicks in.

Nobody ever has died of improperly lifted passages or substandard footnotes. Nations do not crumble when their lions of the keyboard are caught lifting sentences. And although the professoriate might erupt with indignation, members of the general reading public most often react to high-profile plagiarism cases with confused shrugs or sly snickers. Indeed, for many people, the accusations can evoke empathetic memories of late nights long ago in some cramped college dorm room, slapping together term papers, full speed ahead and damn the footnotes.

This summer, Goodwin has been seen more and more on television. PBS might still be gunshy, but she’s under contract with NBC and has turned up on shows hosted by Don Imus, Brian Williams and Katie Couric, talking about history and baseball and her newest subject, “old Abe Lincoln.”

Despite an early spate of cancellations, Goodwin by her count has given a dozen speeches since the McTaggart matter arose, and throughout, she said, the audiences have been with her.

“Most of the time,” she said, “people will say, ‘I don’t understand what that was all about’.... I mean, there are so many other aspects of writing the book.

“The footnotes are one aspect, but do you treat your characters fairly? Do you analyze the situations correctly? Are you showing bias? Have you done the kind of research that will bring the characters to life so that the readers want to read about them?”


In late May, after closed-door wrangling of an undisclosed nature, Goodwin resigned her seat on the 19-member board that awards Pulitzer Prizes. In a written statement, she cited both the controversy and “the need now to concentrate on my Lincoln manuscript.”

The board in turn thanked her for her service, and board members familiar with the matter have declined since to comment further.

In retrospect, this discreet resolution seemed almost predictable: Before her Harvard-tenure controversy was resolved finally, Goodwin left and moved on to write the Kennedy book. When trouble arose with that book, she settled secretly with McTaggart and moved on to Roosevelt. And now, the Pulitzer business quietly closed, she will move on to finish her book on old Abe Lincoln.

“I’ll make sure,” Goodwin said, “that every single footnote is absolutely right.”




Books by Doris Kearns Goodwin:

Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II

Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir

The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga




A Comparison of Writings

An examination of “No Ordinary Time” against other texts has turned up what appear to be parallel language usage and similarly constructed sentences.

“The rumor buzzed through the White House that she would finally be going with the President on something important, and some of us speculated that with the sea air and the romance of the high seas, maybe they would finally share the same bed.”

Lillian Rogers Parks,

with Frances Spatz Leighton

“The Roosevelts,” p. 261


“The White House buzzed with rumors, if Lillian Parks’ memory is to be trusted, that Eleanor ‘would finally be going with the President on something important’; the maids speculated that, with the sea air and the romance of the high seas, the president and first lady would become intimate once again.”


Doris Kearns Goodwin,

p. 573, footnote,

“would finally be going.”


“FDR had made it a rule, during his first campaign for governor, that photographers were not to take pictures of him looking crippled or helpless.... It was an unspoken code, honored by the White House photography corps. If, as happened once or twice, one of its members sought to violate it and try to sneak a picture of the President in his chair, one or another of the older photographers would ‘accidentally’ knock the camera to the ground or otherwise block the picture.”

Hugh Gregory Gallagher,

“FDR’s Splendid Deception,” p. 94


“There was an unspoken code of honor on the part of the White House photographers that the president was never to be photographed looking crippled.... If, as occasionally happened, one of the members of the press corps sought to violate the code by sneaking a picture of the president looking helpless, one of the older photographers would ‘accidentally’ block the shot or gently knock the camera to the ground.”


p. 587, footnote “accidentally.”

“It was the first time that he had used his braces in many months.... During the year since he last stood on his braces, he had lost considerable weight; as a result the braces no longer fitted him.”

Samuel I. Rosenman,

“Working With Roosevelt,” p. 461


“This was the first time in months he had used his braces. Because of all the weight he had lost, they no longer fitted him properly, so that he had difficulty keeping his balance.”


p. 537, speech in Bremerton: Samuel I. Rosenman


Researchers Norma Kaufman and Jane E. King contributed to this report.