This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

January 22, 2002 — The Stephen Ambrose story just gets uglier and uglier. No sooner do I file a story about the guy's classy apology to fellow historian Thomas Childers, from whom Ambrose was just a week or so ago discovered to have ripped off a considerable amount of text, then does another report of plagiarism in an Ambrose book turn up . . . then another, and still another . . . .

As it turns out, America's cuddliest — and best–selling — popular historian is a veritable kleptomaniac. So far a grand total of six Ambrose books have been found to have unattributed, unoriginal text in them, and you know and I know that there are all kinds of people poring over his books right now — and he's written a lot of them, which is part of the problem — and they're going to find more instances of Ambrose sinning.

Now, as we so often ask ourselves of pop historians nowadays, why would a man smarter than the average bear do something so stupid so often? Well, as we all know, for a million dollars a book, that's why. And that's just the advance. Ergo, the man felt compelled to pump 'em out. He needed material, damn it, he needed words! They asked Willie Sutton why he robbed banks and he said because that's where the money is. If you see Stephen Ambrose reading you should disarm him.

Meanwhile, Ambrose's protestations that he didn't commit plagiarism because he gave a general attribution to the sources he ripped off is nonsense and he knows it. If you didn't write it, you need to put quote marks around it. It really is that simple.

As historian Simon Schama told the Boston Globe, "It's not just a scholarly problem, it's a writerly problem. There is a tradition in the writing craft, especially for a popular audience, that you want your own words on the page."

Still, the fact is I thought Ambrose would weather the storm. I mean, I'm still trying to figure out how David McCullough got away with making up a quote from Thomas Jefferson — Thomas Jefferson, for God's sake! — in his bestselling "John Adams," and why that to me even more egregious concoction didn't lead to a wholesale investigation of his work. Well, actually, it did inspire one investigator, but nobody picked up the story when journalist Philip Nobile noted some significant mistakes in McCullough's previous mega–bestselling hagiography "Truman," not to mention some authorial nastiness about fixing the inaccuracies.

As I say, I don't get it. You'd think a historian would want to get it right, of course, but you'd also think people wouldn't flock to the admittedly faulty product they way they have to McCullough — "Adams" has sold over 1.5 million hardcovers, thank you very much. But that's part of the problem — people in this country bow down to money. A big rich blow–hard like McCullough, who is also on TV, is for some reason respected in ways a less commercial — a.k.a. poor — historian burning the midnight oil to get it right never will be.

And what's more, Ambrose is a college professor. As many have pointed out, he's been caught doing something — doing it repeatedly — that would have gotten one of his students expelled, their careers ruined. Have you heard so much as a peep from Ambrose's employer, the University of New Orleans, that they are maybe perhaps kind of a little bit bothered about this? In fact, the head of the school's history department, as an A.P. story noted, wrote a letter to the New Orleans Times–Picayune in support of Ambrose.

So I thought Ambrose would make it.

Then the veterans started speaking up.

Now, I don't think Ambrose is going to make it.

One reason he's so popular is he exploits with such gusto that whole "Greatest Generation" phenomenon. In his World War II books he ignores the generals and champions the grunts, the soldiers on the front line, jumping from the planes, crawling up the beach.

Now, those guys are coming out of the woodwork — even vets who provided Ambrose with oral histories, and are quoted in his books — to say they've been complaining to him about mistakes and misquotes for years and he's been ignoring them. "Blowing them off," as a front page article in the Philadelphia Inquirer recently put it.

So let's review: He stole much of his material, and much of what he didn't steal he got wrong. On top of which his core audience — which also happens to be his core research resource — is turning on him.

Well, as I say, I've been wrong about these historian jokers before. I've seen Pulitzer–winner Joseph "Touchdown" Ellis used as a commentator on this story a couple of times now, and after he got caught lying to his students about being a war and football hero I would have told you that he was too completely and utterly disgraced to ever be given such respect. And he too, come to think of it, was pretty insulting to war veterans.

But that was Vietnam–era veterans, and maybe they are not yet accorded quite the level of wholesome respect reserved for World War II vets. Nor does Ellis actually write about them — he only lied about them in his classroom and in interviews. Still, like McCullough, he's another one who seems to have basically gotten away with unfair exploitation of heroes.

Will Ambrose similarly dodge the bullet? The story of all these manly liars was deflected over the weekend — in a way you could almost sense was coming — when the only woman to really reach the upper echelons of pop historia, Doris Kearns Goodwin, was painted with the plagiarism tarbrush. In a report for the Weekly Standard — which broke the Ambrose story — reporter Bo Crader questioned numerous passages in her 1986 book, "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys." But, unlike her male counterparts when they stood accused, Goodwin did not get surly and did not deny the problem existed. She offered a reasonable explanation of what occurred and, as the Weekly Standard itself pointed out, subsequent versions of the book better credited the source material. And as Goodwin said in self–defense — which she detailed further in an interview with the Boston Globe — that case was fifteen years ago and she hasn't been similarly accused since.

Which is more than some people can say.

Last Week’s Column: WHEN HISTORY GOES POP Stephen Ambrose isn't the first pop historian to be caught playing fast and loose with the facts lately. What's behind it all?


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.