Misjudging Doris Kearns Goodwin

To the editors:

I read with great sadness the editorial written by The Crimson Staff (“The Consequence of Plagiarism,” March 11) calling attention to the several inadequately footnoted phrases and passages drawn from a book by Lynne McTaggart, and from another two or perhaps three works, by the distinguished historian and public commentator, Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her 1987 book, “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.” The editorial chided her for not having consulted the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Handbook for Students before publishing her own 900-page work, a work closely documented with something like 3,500 footnotes—and a work, I might add, that made no bones about its debt to McTaggart, whose book Goodwin dutifully credited and footnoted any number of times and with whom she had settled the inadequate sourcing dispute many years ago. To add insult to injury, the Crimson staff lectured Goodwin that “she has a long road ahead of her before she restores her credibility as an historian or journalist” and helpfully advised that her “first step should be resigning from the University’s oldest governing board,” its 30-member Board of Overseers. What utter nonsense!

To be clear, my sadness came not simply from the fact that I have known Doris Kearns Goodwin for decades and am proud to count myself among her friends as well as her admirers. Nor was I sad to see that Harvard undergraduates remain devoted to the highest standards of scholarly integrity and simple honesty; that devotion heartens me. Rather, I was sad to see how eagerly these bright young people piled on to heap self-righteous condemnation on a scholar whose too-close-paraphrasing of a few passages even the Crimson editors had to acknowledge was “unintentional,” and who had already taken a ridiculous number of hits, ranging from her suspension from “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” to her own recusal from this year’s Pulitzer Prize board deliberations to the University of Delaware’s decision to withdraw its invitation that she be its commencement speaker. I was sad to see how mindlessly, to be frank, students of the college I attended and for which I still feel the greatest fondness were willing to mimic all these presumably sage elders—by overstating what Doris Kearns Goodwin did in being admittedly sloppy with her sources in a minuscule part of her truly extraordinary body of work a decade and a half ago. And I was sad to witness what seems to me the students’ lack of any real sense of proportion or, for that matter, much sense of decency.

Of course Goodwin erred in following her own paraphrased handwritten notes without checking back in every last one of the 300 or so books she cited to make certain that she had not somewhere mistaken a phrase of her own for a phrase of the author to whom she was footnoting. I do not minimize that error; it was one no scholar should make, and one Doris Kearns Goodwin would be the first to admit she should not have made. But there can be no doubt that, unlike the student who turns in someone else’s work as her own and hopes the instructor won’t notice the cribbing—the student for whom the Harvard disciplinary rules to which the Crimson editorial referred were principally written—Goodwin, who cited the very sources she has been accused of not crediting, had not the slightest intention to deceive, to claim originality for thoughts that were unoriginal, or to appropriate another’s deathless prose in hopes that she might be credited with a literary gift that belongs in truth to someone else. And there can be no doubt that, unlike any number of historians and others who have been caught falsifying as fact what was, in truth, fantasy—either about their own lives or about the events they were chronicling—Goodwin has not been accused, and could not plausibly be accused, of ever purveying false or misleading information, the cardinal sin for any scholar.

The very fact that a number of worthies have seen fit to trumpet their own impeccably high standards by suspending or canceling roles and engagements in which Goodwin would have performed both brilliantly and honorably suggests a rather crude moral and scholarly calculus on their part, but that is a subject for another time. My only purpose here is to help set the record straight by speaking up, as one scholar who values his own integrity and reputation for meticulous attribution as much as anyone could, for one of the truly outstanding historians of our time, who eloquently brings to life and puts in marvelous perspective not only signal episodes of our past, some misunderstood and others never before unearthed, but also the passing drama of our present.

The NewsHour is poorer for her absence; the students commencing from Delaware will miss much wisdom because she will not be addressing them; the Harvard Board of Overseers would be greatly diminished without her presence; and the students who undertook to judge her—as well as their parents—would be proud if one day they managed to achieve a fraction of what she has achieved, with as little sacrifice or compromise of their personal integrity.

Laurence H. Tribe

Mar. 14, 2002

The writer is Tyler professor of constitutional law.