I got to know Larry Tribe in the days when Deacon and I were stalwarts of the Dartmouth debate team, and Tribe coached the Harvard team. Shortly thereafter, he was one of my professors at Harvard Law School. Larry was never exactly a friend, since he was a teacher and I was a student, but I knew him and considered him a nice guy and one of the most lucid intellects I’ve encountered.
In later years, Larry became famous as America’s leading Constitutional Law scholar. His treatise, American Constitutional Law, dominates the field. Tribe, a practicing lawyer as well as a scholar, has argued 36 cases in the United States Supreme Court. He is now one of Harvard’s University Professors, the highest honor the university bestows.
Tribe also went on to become the Democratic Party’s top lawyer and, arguably, its leading intellectual. He created the legal and intellectual justification for the Democrats’ shameful destruction of Robert Bork’s career, a role that probably ended Tribe’s own hopes of a Supreme Court appointment. Among other politically charged cases, he represented Al Gore in Bush v. Gore.
Now Larry Tribe stands accused of plagiarism. Joseph Bottum, books and arts editor of the Weekly Standard, presents overwhelming evidence to support his claim that Tribe’s 1985 book, God Save This Honorable Court, was largely copied from a 1974 book called Justices and Presidents by the University of Virginia’s Henry J. Abraham. Bottum’s case rests on the relentless citation of example after example where it is clear that Tribe has copied both the substance and, in many cases, the exact wording of Abraham’s text. Most damning is Tribe’s repetition of errors, like slight misquotations of original sources, in Abraham’s book.
Why did he do it? In a sense, Tribe seems to have fallen prey to the same fate that befell Dan Rather. Much as Rather sacrificed journalism to politics, Tribe may have sacrificed scholarship to politics. Bottum explains:
Part of the answer was the public purpose the book served. Thoughtful observers in the early 1980s could see what Tribe labeled the “greying of the Court,” as the sitting members grew old together and potential replacements could be caught in battles between Republican presidents and Democratic senators.
In 2001 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Tribe himself described the 1985 God Save This Honorable Court as “defending an active role for the Senate in the appointment of Supreme Court Justices” and setting in place the argument that burst into public view two years later: “it wasn’t until the 1987 resignation of Lewis Powell and the confirmation battle later that year over Robert Bork that the concrete stakes in this otherwise abstract controversy came to life for the great majority of the American public.”
This judgment about the book seems nearly universal. “Tribe’s arguments provided the intellectual blueprint for the anti-Bork forces,” the New York Times explained in 1987. “And, as the hearings approached, he played the role of the nominee in mock question-and-answer sessions held in the living room of Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
[T]he Legal Times added in 1993 [that]: “The book, which was published in 1985, became a kind of intellectual road map for Democrats as they worked to defeat Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination two years later.”
There are indications that Tribe’s book may, in fact, have been written largely by others, especially Ronald Klain, who went on to become Vice-President Al Gore’s chief of staff, but at the time was only a first year law student. I don’t know, of course, what caused Tribe’s apparent plagiarism. But my guess is that two forces were at work.
The first is the fact that a famous scholar can ultimately turn into a brand. Larry Tribe’s Harvard biography says that he has published more than 100 books and articles. Realistically, this is more work (along with everything else the prolific Prof. Tribe does) than one man can possibly accomplish. Inevitably, he must have come to depend on law students and other assistants for much of the research and writing that has gone into has books.
The second element, I suspect, is that Tribe regarded God Save This Honorable Court as politics, not scholarship–much as Dan Rather knew that his National Guard story was politics, not journalism. I don’t believe that Larry would deliberately commit plagiarism. But I do believe that when a book is written not as a serious work of scholarship, but as a popularized tract intended to influence a political debate, it is not surprising that the author’s editorial standards may slip. The overriding criterion by which a book like Honorable Court is judged is neither truth nor originality, but political impact. Once a scholar starts down that path, plagiarism is, perhaps, the least of the pitfalls to which he is subject.
As of the time Bottum’s article went to press, Professor Tribe had not responded to his request for a response. It may be that Larry will be able to muster a defense. Based on the quotations Bottum reproduces, however, it is hard to see how that is possible.
When I knew him, Tribe was a good man. He was unfailingly kind to me and rated my own abilities too highly. So this latest blow to the Democratic Party and to Harvard, which was already beset by a series of plagiarism scandals, gives me no pleasure.
DEACON adds: I agree with the sentiment expressed in Rocket Man’s concluding sentence. Rocket is also correct in saying that Harvard has a plagarism problem. Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor who represented Antia Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings, recently admitted that six paragraphs in his newest book, All Deliberate Speed, came almost verbatim from another professor