by Philip Nobile

March 21, 2002 — Plagiarists, like gamblers, tend to be recidivist. Alex Haley, the most famous word thief of the twentieth century, did not begin stealing in Roots in 1976. Haley's habit went as far back as 1962 in his legendary Playboy interview with Miles Davis. Unable to record the uncooperative Davis on tape, Haley faked parts of the Q & A by appropriating quotes from other writers' interviews. As Jack Chambers pointed out in his book, Milestones I: The Music and Times of Miles Davis (1983), this technique led to confusion.

For example, Chambers discovered that Haley had transplanted a quote from Davis's father in a prior Ebony profile to his son in Playboy:

      Davis's father in Ebony: Historically, way back into slavery days,
      the Davises had been musicians and had performed classic works in
      the homes and plantations of owners. My father, Miles the first, was
      born six years after the Emancipation and forbade me to play music
      because the only place a Negro could play then was in barrel houses.

      Miles Davis in Playboy: The slaves Davises played classical string music
      on the plantation. My father, Miles the first, was born six years after the
      Emancipation. He wanted to play music but my grandfather wanted him to
      be more than an entertainer for white folks.

"Any assertion by Miles Davis that his father was Miles Davis the first and that he was born six years after the Emancipation is utter nonsense," Chambers commented, "and Miles Davis would know that better than anyone, except perhaps his own father, whose father in turn these facts concern."

So when an author is revealed as a plagiarist in one instance, it is natural to wonder whether the behavior was repeated. After The Standard disclosed copying in Stephen Ambrose's The Wild Blue in January, purloined passages were soon located in a half–dozen more of his books.

Inevitably, the same question arises concerning Doris Kearns Goodwin. Was her admittedly gargantuan copying in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys involving scores of passages from several books an isolated incident, or did she do the same elsewhere, in particular, in her next book, the Pulitzer Prize–winning No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt? The matter of repetition is especially relevant regarding the Roosevelt volume because Goodwin used the same research methodology for both books.

Goodwin has consistently denied that her copying in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys was intentional. Instead she blamed everything on a mix–up of her handwritten notes. Therefore whatever unattributed material she took from other writers was purely accidental (wink, wink). But since she made handwritten notes for No Ordinary Time, too, it makes sense to surmise that the same accidents may have reoccurred.

On Sunday, February 25, I went to my local Barnes and Noble in Brooklyn and bought No Ordinary Time. Back home, as I scanned the footnotes, I noticed a number of references to David McCullough's Truman, which I had on my shelf.

I quickly ran across three passages in Truman that seemed to be copied into No Ordinary Time. That night I sent a draft article on my findings to historynewsnetwork.org., where I am a contributing editor, and the next day I emailed the parallel passages to David Rosenthal, Goodwin's publisher at Simon & Schuster, seeking comment.

Late Monday afternoon, Rick Shenkman, the website's creator and editor, went over my copy line–by–line on the telephone with me. The final draft included side–by–side passages from McCullough and Goodwin as well as Rosenthal's comment: "Any suggestion or allegation of plagiarism in No Ordinary Times is baseless." While Shenkman waited for the posting to kick in, he released the article to the New York Times.

During the interim, Goodwin mounted a telephone campaign to stop my story from publication at historynewsnetwork and pick-up elsewhere in the media. (The Times did not bite.) She called me around eight o'clock in the evening requesting to speak off–the–record. After a half-hour's conversation, which I am not at liberty to detail, I told her that I was proceeding and that she was welcome to respond on the website. She signed off with a legal threat.

Next, I contacted Shenkman, who told me that Goodwin had already engaged him at length, likewise in confidence, and that she mentioned legal consequences for me more than once. Although Shenkman was not persuaded by her denial of copying McCullough, he fell sway to her argument that No Ordinary Time did not have the same problems as The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, and thus should not be linked even in part with the tainted book.

I was disappointed by Shenkman's change of mind. Goodwin has zero credibility on the subject of plagiarism. In 1988, after Lynne McTaggart nailed her for copying some seventy times from her biography, Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times, in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, Goodwin faced a choice: either correct the theft honorably or cover it up. As we now know, she chose the Nixonian path by buying off McTaggart with a huge sum of money, gagging her with a confidentiality agreement, backdating a preface after inserting a legally mandated homage to Kathleen Kennedy, and failing to put quote marks around the stolen words in subsequent editions. To this day, Goodwin refuses to divulge the settlement amount or dissolve the confidentiality agreement.

The Truman parallels, published here for the first time, are open to debate. I believe that they are well within the ballpark of copying. Two Boston Globe columnists disagreed. Alex Beam said that they do not "meet any reasonable test for plagiarsim," while acknowledging that Goodwin's text contains "echoes and borrowed phrases" from McCullough (Feb. 28). Tom Oliphant, a friend of the lady's, said that the Truman citations were both "flimsy and false" (March 3).

Beam was on the mark when he conceded "echoes and borrowed phrases," which are not only a "reasonable test for plagiarism," but the very one that Goodwin endorsed in her admissions. "Though my footnotes repeatedly cited Ms. McTaggart's work, 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," she explained in a TIME essay (January 27). David D. Kirkpatrick reported in the February 23 New York Times that Goodwin "planned to correct as many as 50 [additional] borrowed phrases from Ms. McTaggart's book" in a new edition of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.

It is important to remember that plagiarism comes in several sizes — from multiple phrases, sentences, paragraphs, chapters and even to extended paraphrases.

While No Ordinary Time did not grab long snatches of McCullough's prose, it does contain verbatim phrases and close paraphrases from Truman following the same pattern that Goodwin apologized for in the McTaggart case. Whether the entire book is riddled with misappropriations is another story. In fairness to Goodwin, I report that two other journalists have checked out a few books cited in No Ordinary Time and found nothing suspicious.

In closing, it must be said that Goodwin has behaved abominably during this controversy. After the first wave of revelations she pretended that the McTaggart copying was a minor matter involving a small number of borrowings. Then she deflected her failure to put quotes around McTaggart's words — after McTaggart complained — by claiming that the latter did not ask her to do it . . . as if it is okay to plagiarize in secret as long as the other writer grants permission. She also covered up an allegedly substantial dollar settlement.

And let us not forget the Pinnochio alibi — it was her first big history book, paraphrased notes were confused with direct quotes, the 3500 footnotes were overwhelming, blah blah, blah. Who is she kidding? A millionaire with three paid assistants and all the help she could get from Simon and Schuster? If Goodwin's plagiarism was inadvertent, I'm sweet Rosie O'Grady.

The best and quickest route back to respectabilty is full disclosure. Goodwin should (1) release her notes and manuscript for The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, (2) unveil the legal papers and correspondence regarding the McTaggart settlement, (3) make her assistants available for interviews, (4) and sit down with reporters and answer any and all questions. Otherwise, it is bad faith all over again.

The McCullough Parallels

Three Parallel Passages in David McCullough's Truman and Doris Kearns Goodwin's No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt

I have bolded words in Goodwin that come directly from McCullough and italicized her paraphrases. In addition to the parallel passages, I have included the footnotes that each author provided in the back of their books. Finally, I have tried to exegete the Goodwin passages vis–a–vis their relation to plagiarism.

1. Truman, p. 358
Never would he forget, Truman wrote, the sight of so many people in grief.


No Ordinary Time, p. 613
Never, Truman later wrote, would he forget the sight of so many people in grief.

Truman later wrote: McCullough, Truman, p. 357.

Comment: As Goodwin said in TIME, a footnote is no substitute for quote marks in the text. Sticking "later" in McCullough's sentence did not alter her obligation.

2. Truman, p. 301
Roosevelt thought a young man was needed on the Democratic ticket, and to the surprise of others, he proposed William O. Douglas, an idea none of them had ever seriously entertained. Douglas, he said, was youthful (he was fifty-three), dynamic, a good liberal, and he had a kind of Boy Scout quality that would appeal to voters. Besides, Roosevelt thought, Douglas played an interesting game of poker.
      But the idea fell flat. Nobody wanted Douglas any more than Wallace. Again, the talk turned to Harry Truman.

the decisive meeting: Allen, 128-29 [i.e. Presidents Who Have Known Me by George E. Allen]

No Ordinary Time, p. 526–7
Roosevelt proposed Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Before Roosevelt appointed him to the Court in 1939, Douglas had been a professor of Law at Yale, and chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, where he had led the fight to bring public utilities under federal regulation. He was young and energetic, the president said, and what is more, he played an interesting game of poker. Despite Roosevelt's obvious enthusiasm for Douglas, no one else picked up the idea. The talk then turned to Senator Harry Truman.


Comment: Although Goodwin did not cite McCullough in her footnotes, her brief anecdote about Douglas mimicked Truman, not only in phrases and paraphrases, but also in order. Notice the changes of "Besides" to "and what is more" and "the idea fell flat" to "no one else picked up the idea." The untrained eye might see the paraphrases in this parallel, if not the phrases, as entirely legitimate. However, McCullough was not the primary source of the Douglas anecdote. McCullough got his information from George Allen's book and packaged the data according to his own wits. Apparently, Goodwin ripped off his package, including some of his words, without attribution of any kind.

3. Truman, p. 373
. . . Bess and Margaret Truman were crestfallen. "The White House upstairs is a mess [. . .] I was so depressed," wrote Margaret. The Roosevelts had lived comfortably among possessions shabby and fine . . . Mrs. Roosevelt had left untouched the $50,000 allocated by Congress for upkeep and repair of the house. Her focus was on other concerns.
      Carpets were threadbare. Walls looked as if they hadn't been cleaned in years and were covered with lighter patches where pictures had hung. The scant remaining furniture was in sad disrepair. Some of the draperies had actually rotted. It looked like a ghost house, remembered the assistant head usher, J.B. West.

"The White House upstairs": quoted in Truman, Bess W. Truman, 260.
like a ghost house: West, with Kotz, Upstairs at the White House, 58.

No Ordinary Time, p. 617
In private, Bess and Margaret Truman were appalled at what they saw: walls streaked with dust and faded along the outlines of all the pictures that had been taken down, shabby furniture badly in need of upholstering threadbare carpets that hadn't been cleaned in years, draperies that were actually rotting. Eleanor had been so busy that she had not paid much attention to the physical condition of the mansion, leaving untouched a $50,000 congressional allocation for upkeep and repair. "Mrs. Roosevelt was more concerned about people being swept under the national rug due to injustice than she was about someone fnding dirt under the White House rug," White House Butler Alonzo field explained. "The White House upstairs in a mess," Margaret Truman wrote. "I was so depressed." White House usher J.B. West confirmed Margaret's impression. "It was like a ghost house," he recalled.

"Mrs. Roosevelt . . .": interview with Alonzo Fields.
"The White House upstairs . . ." David McCullough, Truman (1992), p. 373.
"like a ghost house . . .": J.B. West, Upstairs at the White House (1973), p. 58.

Comment: Once again, Goodwin appropriated McCullough's anecdote via exact words and close paraphrases just as she did with McTaggart. She also copied two of his quotes, though she went to the trouble of adding marks to West's. Further, as in the previous parallel, she treated McCullough as a primary source when he was merely reporting what he had gleaned from Margaret Truman's biography of her mother. Copying McCullough here was not only plagiarism but hackwork, and sloppy hackwork at that. For instance, McCullough wrote that walls "hadn't been cleaned in years." In contrast, Goodwin wrote that carpets "hadn't been cleaned in years." How did she know that?

© copyright 2002 Philip Nobile.


Write to Moby
Letters policy: All letters must be signed. Also, please say where you’re writing from — either an affiliation or hometown.
All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.