Dennis Lythgoe: Plagiarism allegations shouldn't be forgotten

Published: Sunday, March 9 2008 12:00 a.m. MST

Doris Kearns Goodwin (Theo Kingma) Doris Kearns Goodwin (Theo Kingma)
DORIS Kearns Goodwin, a prolific American political historian and former Harvard professor, is coming to speak in Layton, courtesy of the Davis School District and the Davis Education Foundation. For a number of years, Goodwin has been represented by the Washington Speakers Bureau, earning $25,000 to $39,999 per lecture. Her Utah lecture will probably net her somewhere in that neighborhood.
That bothers me, because The Weekly Standard reported in January 2002 that evidence strongly suggested that Goodwin plagiarized extensively in several of her books. The most serious instances, at least 40 borrowed passages, were found to be in her 900 page book, "The Kennedys and the Fitzgeralds" (1987).
The Los Angeles Times reported that plagiarism was also involved in the book that won her a Pulitzer Prize, "No Ordinary Time."
Webster's dictionary says that plagiarism is "to steal and pass off as one's own the ideas or words of another — or "to commit literary theft."
Richard Posner in his new book, "The Little Book of Plagiarism," writes, "Plagiarism is considered by most writers, teachers, journalists, scholars and even members of the general public to be the capital intellectual crime."
In his 1989 book, "Stolen Words," novelist Thomas Mallon alleges that those who commit plagiarism "almost always do it more than once." Mallon added that kidnapping a writer's words "is to find them imprisoned, like changelings, on someone else's equally permanent page ... vicariously absorbed by violation."
Goodwin's tendency to steal the words of others was actually discovered 15 years earlier when Lynne McTaggart, author of "Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times," found that Goodwin had taken huge amounts of her words and phrases without attributing them to McTaggart.
When Goodwin was confronted, she agreed to pay McTaggart an undisclosed sum of "hush money" so that the incident would not be made public. McTaggart argued that the thievery of her words was so massive that she thought it impossible for a new edition of Goodwin's book to be printed with quotation marks added.
Many examples of Goodwin's account as compared to McTaggart's were published in newspapers and magazines so that the reader could see that the words and phrases used by Goodwin were often exact copies of those used by McTaggart.
Goodwin's argument when confronted was to blame it on her "careless" habit of "taking notes in longhand." In other words, it was accidental. She worked with an assembly line of four researchers, and allegedly, when she looked at their notes and her own, she could not always distinguish between them.
She told The New York Times, "If I am writing up a passage ... and part of it is from other people's writing, I just type it up and put it in a footnote."
Subsequently, universities around the country that had invited Goodwin to deliver commencement addresses disinvited her. She was dropped as a historical commentator on PBS's "The Newshour with Jim Lehrer."
Publishers promised new editions of some of her books but never delivered. Then the scandal just died down, and Goodwin kept writing; her latest is about Lincoln and his Cabinet, "Team of Rivals," and it has sold very well.
So far, no charges of plagiarism have been leveled at her latest book.
For some time she has been appearing on NBC to offer political commentary based on her historical knowledge. It would appear that she is now operating as a scholar and historian whose reputation for plagiarism is no longer relevant.
I beg to differ.
Since she has never admitted to plagiarism in spite of overwhelming evidence against her, I think Goodwin's lectures and books should both be taken with a grain of salt.

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com

If you go ...
What: Doris Kearns Goodwin, historian and author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, lecturing on Lincoln's leadership lessons and storytelling characteristics
Where: Meridian Ballroom, Davis Conference Center, Layton
When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
How much: $70 per person
Phone: 402-5182

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