Perlstein, Plagiarism, and Originality

I’ve been holding back on commenting on Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan because I’m hard at work on an epic review for the Claremont Review of Books.  But the controversy over Perlstein’s treatment of Craig Shirley’s material, discussed in this New York Times article and many other places this week, deserves some separate and timely consideration, chiefly because my CRB review will concentrate on the ideas and argument of the book, and this controversy may be old news by the time the review appears.  The New York Times reporter who did the story, Alexandra Alter, interviewed me at some length, but did not use a single quotation from me in the story—perhaps because what I emphasized might have been more damaging to Perlstein than Shirley’s plagiarism charge.

Perlstein removes any doubt you may have had

Perlstein removes any doubt you may have had

In a nutshell, while Perlstein includes more than 130 references to Shirley’s book in his online source notes and offers effusive praise for Shirley in his acknowledgements, there are numerous descriptive passages that appear in Shirley’s Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All that Perlstein appears to have lifted without any attribution.  Shirley has pointed to several dozen examples.  Here are just two, describing the Kansas City of the 1976 GOP convention:

Shirley (p. 297): “Even its ‘red light’ district was festooned with red, white, and blue bunting, as dancing elephants were placed in the windows of several smut peddlers.”

Perlstein (p. 771):  “The city’s anemic red-light district was festooned with red, white and blue bunting; several of the smut peddlers featured dancers in elephant costume in their windows.”

Shirley (p. 322): “About the only person in Kansas City who was keeping cool was Reagan himself . . . Reagan, watching on television, dissolved in laughter.”

Perlstein (p. 785): “Just about the only person who was calm through the entire thing was Ronald Reagan. He watched it on television in his hotel suite, dissolving in laughter.”

Whether this rises to an actionable plagiarism I’ll leave to lawyers.  The standards in trade publishing, as opposed to academic publishing, are very loose and vague.  (There isn’t much plagiarism in academic publishing less because of exacting conventions than the question of why would you plagiarize something that is generally unreadable in the first place?)  Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose were both caught red handed borrowing phrasing from others.

For my own part, a few times when reading Perlstein’s galleys I said, “Hey, wait a minute—that passage sounds very familiar,” but upon checking the online source notes I found that Perlstein had cited me each time, so I have no complaint on this front.  But how hard would it have been to say, “As Craig Shirley painted the scene. . .” While Perlstein appears to be fairly scrupulous in citing third-party quotations and facts he derived from others, there’s very little crediting of the descriptive prose of others in the book.  It would take nothing away from Perlstein’s copious research, nor the flow of his prose, to make such acknowledgements in his main text, let alone in his online references.  I suspect Shirley is not the only person appropriated this way.  This ought to be at least an embarrassment for Perlstein.

But worse than plagiarism or laziness or sloppiness is what ought to be the supreme embarrassment of unoriginality.  In this regard I was always struck by an imitation of William Manchester’s magnificent opening to the first volume of his Churchill biography, The Last Lion.  Here’s the final paragraph of that page-and-a-half opening (bear with it to the end, because that’s where the payoff is):

England’s new leader, were he to prevail, would have to stand for everything England’s decent, civilized Establishment had rejected.  They viewed Adolf Hitler as the product of complex social and historical forces.  Their successor would have to be a passionate Manichean who saw the world as a medieval struggle to the death between the powers of good and the powers of evil, who held that individuals are responsible for their actions and that the German dictator was therefore wicked.  A believer in martial glory was required, one who saw the splendor in the ancient parades of victorious legions through Persepolis and could rally the nation to brave the coming German fury.  An embodiment of fading Victorian standards was wanted: a tribune for honor, loyalty, duty, and the supreme virtue of action; one who would never compromise with iniquity, who could create the sublime mood and thus give men heroic visions of what they were and might become.  Like Adolf Hitler he would have to be a leader of intuitive genius, a born demagogue in the original sense of the word, a believer in the supremacy of his race and his national destiny, an artist who knew how to gather the blazing light of history into his prism and then distort it to his ends, an embodiment of inflexible resolution who could impose his will and his imagination on his people—a great tragedian who understood the appeal of martyrdom and could tell his followers the worst, hurling it to them like great hunks of bleeding meat, persuading them that the year of Dunkirk would be one in which it was “equally good to live or to die”—who could if necessary be just as cruel, just as cunning, and just as ruthless as Hitler but who could win victories without enslaving populations, or preaching supernaturalism, or foisting off myths of his own infallibility, or destroying, or even warping, the libertarian institutions he had sworn to preserve.  Such a man, if he existed, would be England’s last chance.

In London there was such a man.  (Emphasis added.)

I know from speaking to one of Manchester’s close friends that Manchester went through something like 17 drafts of that opening passage.

Now have a look at an early passage of Dinesh D’Souza’s book Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader (pp. 34-35)

In this time of ignominy and crisis, when the very issue of national identity was at stake, Americans needed a leader of unusual vision and determination.  The country required a statesman who would not accept his country’s decline as an inevitable fate.  Such a leader would need to find creative solutions to domestic and international problems that had eluded the most sophisticated minds and were the source of national demoralization.  Even more important, he had to have the skills to navigate the treacherous currents of politics, in order to win legislative victories and put his programs into effect.  Since even the best remedies take time, he would require tremendous resources of patience and tenacity, so as not to be distracted from his goals.  Moreover, in a democratic society like the United States, such a leader required the ability to win the support of a large majority.  The nation’s woes required nothing less than a man who could turn the tide of history and renew the American spirit.

In California, there was such a man.  (Emphasis added.)

That can’t be called plagiarism, but it is certainly unoriginal.  And in the end that’s probably worse than plagiarism. D’Souza didn’t need to ape Manchester’s original formula so slavishly, and Perlstein didn’t need to borrow the descriptive prose of others without attribution in the text.

As for the main argument of Perlstein’s book, stay tuned. . .


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