Peter Charles Hoffer, author of "Past Imperfect," when did you first think you wanted to write a book about this subject?
The first thing I thought was that the professional division of the American Historical Association, on which I`ve served for the past three years, needed to address these problems, and we weren`t. There were a variety of reasons why we weren`t addressing these problems, but someone needed to talk about them from the professional side. Serious problems in the doing of history were not being discussed by professional historians who do history for a living, who`ve been trained, who are experts. We were leaving it to the media pundits and to "The Washington Times" and "The Weekly Standard," and it was totally partisan and, in many ways, very uninformed. So it was time to write it. So right after these stories began to break, I began to think about it. and then when I served on the professional division, I developed a strong intention of writing about it. And then the writing just came.
What are these stories you are talking about?
These are the stories of some of our most honored and justly famous historians -- Stephen Ambrose, who has been called "America`s historian," for good reason, I think, in many ways, Doris Kearns Goodwin, who is a beloved historian and also a very visible face on television, for example, Michael Beschloss, a brilliant young historian -- I say young, relatively everyone is beginning to seem young to me now -- who was a neighbor of mine. He was teaching at Emory, and I teach at the University of Georgia in Athens. So he was down the road, fellow Georgia historians. And then Joe Ellis, who in the 1990s was among the most prolific historians and the most honored for his work on Jefferson, which won the National Book Award, and then "Founding Brothers," which won the Pulitzer Prize. And they were pilloried, made their apologies, but the attack kept on going. And you know, historians would do, you know, media bites, say this, say that, but no one had really gone into the cases, tried to find out what had happened, had analyzed the text the way historians always analyze text, the way that historians always analyze primary sources and documents. So those are the stories.
But there`s a back story, as well, that going back to the beginning of our nation, history has been tremendously important to us, but it was not always to get the story right. This is long before there were professional historians. The historians at the beginning of our country`s history are ministers, they are publicists, they are editors, they are politicians, they`re teachers. They`re part-time amateur historians, many of them very, very fine writers, and dedicated researchers, not professionals. But they knew that history had to support the country, that it had to send a message that this experimental democratic republic could survive because the story of republics in history has not been a happy one. They have risen and fallen. In fact, there were old 18th century laws of how republics would automatically fall. So this was a history with a partisan purpose. And history with a partisan purpose, history that`s spun in a certain way, that leaves out people, that leaves out stories that contradict the message, that`s not good history. So there was -- there`s a long history of the misuse of history for various kinds of partisan ideological purposes. And the question was, Was the history that Ambrose and Goodwin and Ellis and Beschloss were producing -- was -- did it fit into that genre of history that was intentionally partisan itself, or was the attack on them part of increasing partisan controversy surrounding history starting, really, in the 1950s, with historians moving in one way or another to position themselves during the cold war?
You mentioned the AHA. What is it?
The American Historical Association was founded in 1884 by a group of seven white male Protestant middle class elite historians. It was part of a movement that was happening at the time, where professionals began to create professional associations -- the American Economic Association, the American Sociological Association. Also, it`s the time when you get the American Bar Association. Various businesses and other professional groups are creating associations. But it`s unique in many ways because in 1889, the United States Congress gave it a charter, and that charter told it to protect and preserve historical documents and to watch over, to supervise, the doing of history. Now, the founders of the AHA had a particular vision of history. It was a top-down vision of history. History was what great men did or what happened to leaders. So it`s a history that many historians are not doing today. It was elitist. It had very little use for minorities. There were no women in it for a long, long time.
But it has evolved. It has evolved into the umbrella association that is very varied, very receptive to lots of different kinds of history. And in 1974, it became a watchdog. It created the council, which is elected, created the professional division. And after a series of plagiarism scandals in the middle of the 1980s -- although plagiarism has always been with history, historians have always faced that peril, sometimes succumbed to it -- they created a kind of procedure by which the professional division could hear and adjudicate complaints. And the professional division heard complaints, and I think in many cases, in most cases, in 95 percent of the cases, handled them very well indeed, kept confidentiality, a very careful, scholarly review of claim and counterclaim. Both sides were given a chance twice to go back and examine documents. In other words, it was what historians did, providing documentary evidence, reading and critically thinking about the documentary evidence. And then in 2003 -- and I have to say that a number of us in the association, a number of us on the professional division were not happy about this -- the council instructed the professional division to cease hearing cases, to cease hearing complaints.
You know, the hardest thing to do in history, and the hardest thing for me to do, for example, with Ambrose and the other cases, is provide motive. Even when you get the chance to talk to people, because you have a text, you have what they say the motives were. And what the council, in its official statement and the executive director, said was that we did not have effective sanctions. That is to say, we gave a letter to the parties involved, indicating what the judgment was, and they could do with it as they wished. In a handful of cases we asked the council if they would be willing to publicize it, but in general, we had no power to sanction. There was also a subtext to that, that we were afraid of lawsuits because when you say someone is a plagiarist or someone has in some way carried on professional misconduct, that`s slander per se. They can always find a lawyer to take that on contingency, and so on. Whereas the American Historical Association and the members acting in their voluntary capacity -- I mean, members of the PD are not paid. You`re elected for a three-year term by the membership. They pay your expenses to meet, and that`s it.
How big is the membership?
Membership now is almost 14,000.
No. Well, in a sense, yes. Everyone is very interested in history. Everyone reads history. Everyone does history in some way. We have people who are museum curators. We have people who are popular historian writers. We have elementary through 12 school teachers who are members. I think that about -- I looked at the membership figures -- about 75 percent of our members are teaching historians, at colleges or universities.
What do you pay a year to belong to it?
A we have a sliding scale. It`s voluntary. You announce what you`re willing to pay. It can go up to $110, $120 a year. It can go all the way down to $20.
Where is it headquartered?
Not far from here, 400 A Street Southeast.
How many people work there?
They have a staff of about 25 people in house.
Who runs it?
It`s a -- I mean, it`s a professional organization. It`s paid for by the membership. It doesn`t solicit grants or those kinds of things.
So it`s independent.
Doesn`t take any money from the taxpayer?
You say in your book that one -- I think one of the former presidents of the AHA, Bernard Bailyn, is the greatest historian either alive -- or you define it. And I ask you why.
Yes, that`s what I said. And if you say that to Bud Bailyn -- and now I`ve called him Bud the first time. In the 40 years that I have known and respected and admired him and his work, that is the first time that I have called him Bud, which is his nickname. And I am told by others that I am the only person, the only one of his students, because I was his graduate student from `65 to `70, and I`m still his student -- they will tell you that I`m the only person who hasn`t called him that. And I recall that you had him on the show.
And I`m sure that you didn`t call him Bud, either.
I didn`t know it was his name.
He is remarkable.
Why? And where is he now?
He is emeritus at Harvard, but he runs this Atlantic Rim seminar. And to it come among the best and the brightest of young people working in early American history or African history or Western European history to gather together. In fact, it takes place in the summer and it`s called colloquially "Camp Bud" because he takes an active interest in what everyone is doing. He will -- he`s lost nothing in terms of his analytical ability, in terms of his ability to put things together in ways that you just don`t see at first. You might not get that if you hear him give a talk or you have him in an interview. I think he is -- he`s shy. And given someone who has won all of those honors -- I think, what, two or three Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Award, the Bancroft, and now sort of commonly described as the greatest living American historian...
You have to read his work to see all the subtlety, to see how he will take a text, take a primary source and look at it from one side, like a jeweler, and then turn it and see another facet of it, and then turn it and see another facet of it. And you follow him through. And he`s not an easy person to read. He`s a fine stylist, but he`s not an easy person to read because they`re not stories. That`s all that popular history. It`s analytical, intellectual, cultural history of a critical sort. And it`s almost like reading Rashi, you know, one of the great Jewish commentators on Talmud. You sort of have to follow it very, very carefully. And the proof of its greatness is each time you read it, or in my case, each time you teach it -- because I`ve taught it to graduate students and I`ve taught it to undergraduate students, its "Ideological Origins," ``Voyagers,`` and so on, going back to ``Education in the Forming of American Society`` and the ``New England Merchants`` -- the first book that he published, I think, in `65 or `64, something like that -- no, I`m wrong, `61, something like that, way back -- every time you read it and every time you teach it, you see something new.
When did he teach you? What year?
From `65 to `70.
Well, he was -- I was a graduate student at Harvard, and he was my adviser.
Where`d you do your undergraduate work?
University of Rochester.
What`s your expertise? What field?
I do early American and I do American legal.
If we saw you in the classroom at the University of Georgia, what year would we see you teaching? How big would the class be?
When I go back, I teach Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays, but I`m in my office on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And at 10:00 o`clock, you would see me teaching the early American history to 35 people. At 12:00, you would see me in one of the amphitheaters in our new student learning center, teaching 300 students the American survey. And then at 2:00 o`clock, I have an honors section, and we`re doing sort of great books, although it`s a -- technically, it`s a survey, what I`ve done is I`ve given them seven great books, and one of them is "Ideological Origins," Bernard Bailyn`s classic from 1967.
Natalie Hall (ph) is?
Where did you meet her?
She`s my college roommate`s kid sister. She is an absolutely remarkable person.
What does she do?
She`s a law professor. She had polio as a kid. She had -- there was a bad batch of the live vaccine, and a number of young folks in New York City got it. She got it. So with that and the scoliosis and everything else, she got her Ph.D. in history from Columbia. She got her JD from Georgia. And she`s now a law professor at Rutgers Camden Law School. And for 16 years -- we`ve been married for 34 years, going on 35. And for 16 years, I`ve been going back and forth between Athens and south Jersey.
I can`t afford every week. Every other week. She`s been wonderful. We have two sons. And the older one is a historian teaching at Seton Hall. And he also has a law degree and he also has a Ph.D. He got the law degree, and he said, I don`t want to practice law. I said, What do you want to do? He said, I think I`ll get a Ph.D. in history. So he went to Johns Hopkins, got a Ph.D. in history and now he`s teaching at Seton Hall.
What is plagiarism?
Plagiarism is taking another person`s words and claiming them as your own. Now, words we know are not just words. They embody ideas, formulations, arguments. They tell stories. They depict a certain kind of scene. We, as scholars, use other people`s words all the time, but we are required by the cannons of our professionalism, by our ethical standards, to either put those words, if they`re an exact quotation, into quotation marks, or to cite where we got them precisely and not paraphrase them so closely that, in fact, we`re taking the characteristic particular forms of expression of another person. So you have two ways you can go. Read it, think about it, turn it into your own words, then indicate where you got the ideas and the story. Or if you want to use those words, don`t closely paraphrase and then hide the debt, quote it, put it in quotation marks and show exactly where you got it.
Do you have to quote it in the text, in the narrative, or can you put it in a footnote?
You can put it in a footnote.
Just so it`s documented in the book.
Documented precisely in the book. For example, one of the things that people who plagiarize sometimes do is they`ll take the words, change them a little bit, and then when they cite either the footnote, the end note, or wherever, they`ll cite a block of pages, as though they were just -- they had read and they had thought about it and they were using sort of the author of the other source as a source themselves, but not really using the words. Whereas, in fact, what they did is they took a particular passage and they changed it a little bit, and then they hid the extent of the dependence.
What`s a primary source?
A primary source is a document created at the time that you`re studying. So for example, if we`re doing early American history, a primary source might be one of the charters of the colonies. It might be a letter that a colonist had written back to the home country. It might be a diary. It might be a law passed then. It could be a printed -- it can be printed. It might be the Declaration of Independence.
It`s not another person`s book?
It can be in a book from that period of time. So for example, when John Adams writes his discourses on Davila or when Thomas Jefferson writes his notes on the state of Virginia, they were later published in book form. That`s OK. They`re still primary sources because they`re from that time.
What`s a secondary source?
It`s a work by another scholar. It can be written long ago, it can be written yesterday, but it`s a work by another scholar talking about the primary sources or telling stories about another time and place. It`s not a wall between primary and secondary sources. It`s a sort of semipermeable membrane. So that if I`m writing about George Bancroft, George Bancroft was a very, very well known, much respected historian in the 19th century, I`m treating his books as though they were primary sources. However, if I wanted to know something that I couldn`t find in a recent book about, say, colonization, and I looked at Bancroft`s first volume of his history of the United States and then talked about colonization, I would be using him as a secondary source.
Is it possible -- you know why I`m asking this question -- that if somebody today got the Bancroft Prize, they would not take it? I mean, I`m really asking it because...
You mean after they`ve read this book?
After they`ve read what I said about Bancroft...
Or the Parkman...
... casually plagiarizing...
But also... (CROSSTALK)
... what he stood for, what he didn`t report, what he didn`t write about.
Yes, I think that someone could.
Who was he, George Bancroft?
George Bancroft started -- I mean, he came from eastern Massachusetts, middle class family, was going to be a minister. He was -- he later became a politician, very, very well known and respected Democratic politician. He was one of our diplomats. He was someone, really, who represented that eastern, New England, educated elite -- very literate, great faith, however, unlike many of them, in democracy. But it was a particular 19th century kind of democracy. It was a democracy that left out as much as it included. Now, in a way, you can say compare that to his Federalist, more conservative, eastern New England cohort, and yes, he`s far more liberal. But there`s no -- I mean, there`s -- there`s no real connection between liberal and conservative and following the cannons of a profession. And in the 19th century, it was OK to borrow from someone else, to incorporate other people`s ideas. Footnoting was a way of showing what you had read more than a way of paying the kind of debt that we see it as today. I mean, he wasn`t a professional historian, although he wrote, was read, and made money at it.
Where do you get the Bancroft prize and award?
It`s given by Columbia University.
Francis Parkman is from a Boston mercantile family, went to Harvard, like Bancroft, most famous, I think, for his first book, "Oregon Trail." He was one of a group of historians who`ve actually walked through history. The most famous modern of that kind I think, sort of the middle of the 20th century, was Samuel Eliot Morrison, who actually sailed the routes that the great explorers sailed. But Parkman went out on the trail. He went out on the Oregon trail. He met the Pawnee. He met the Sioux. He wrote about them. And it was a very, very popular book, "Oregon Trail." He was not a healthy man. He had a number of ailments. It`s not clear how many of them were psychosomatic. He had problems with his eyes, serious problems with his eyes. Part of the time, he actually couldn`t see. He would sit in a dark room, and had he a secretary reading to him. His great work is, of course, the multi-volume history of the conflict between the English and the French for control of colonial America. And ``The Conspiracy of Pontiac,`` which traces that event, is probably the best known of those books.
Where do you get the Parkman award?
The Parkman award is given by the organization -- not the organization -- I`m sorry -- the Society of American Historians. It`s a private group. I`m not a member of it. It`s -- you are sort of coopted into it. You are elected into it by the members. The money came from another historian, Allan Nevins, who was a 20th century historian who published many, many, many very, very popular books sort of to the right side of center, praising people like Rockefeller, and so on. I mean, it was a -- at the time, that was perhaps more popular among historians. But it`s a grant of money that was given for the best written book that year in American history.
You say in your book that Allan Nevins was a conservative and Harry Steele Commager was a liberal...
... and that between the two of them, they published about 160 books.
Yes, they did.
Is that possible, 70-some books each?
Yes, it is. I mean, there are people who do -- people who -- no one has come close to the -- I think they both published in the `70s or `80s. Richard B. Morris came close, I think, to their numbers. Look, if you publish a best-selling textbook, that textbook will go through -- like John Garraty`s "American Nation" -- will go through 16 editions. That`s 16 books right there.
Then if you publish collections -- among those books that they publish were collections of documents. So once you`ve published a successful book, the textbook publishers and the trade book publishers are perfectly willing to cut you contracts, forward contracts, for more books. I mean, I don`t come close to that. Now, I have I think about 35, 36 titles, and half of them are edited works. So I`m 60 years old, and I`m not going to catch them. (LAUGHTER)
Many of the people in your book that you mention have appeared on this show. Three of the people you document this issue of both plagiarism, and in Joseph Ellis`s case, something else, which I`ll ask you about -- we`ve got three -- I`ve got three clips, and I want to -- just for identification purpose, for people who may not remember what they look like and sound like. They all appeared about 10 years ago. And the first one is Stephen Ambrose. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP - MAY 25, 1994)
We were in a hotel room out by Heathrow, ready to go. I woke up at 3:00 AM with my head just full of these stories. It was a little room. There wasn`t any place to go. I didn`t want to wake Maura (ph) up. I went into the bathroom, sat down on the john, took out a yellow legal pad and started writing. Came time to wake her up, 7:00 AM, I did. We got dressed, got in the cab, went out to the airport. I`m writing in the cab as we go out. Got to the airport, got checked in, sat down to have coffee. I did some more writing. Got on the plane, flew home to the States. I`m writing the whole time. As the plane landed in New York, I had the first chapter done. (END VIDEO CLIP)
That`s just a little slice of that interview talking about his writing. You write about him in what way in this book?
I come to him as one of his readers. I own "Pegasus Bridge," I own "Band of Brothers," I own -- trying to remember the title of the Lewis and Clark -- "Undaunted Courage." They`re great reads. You can read them in the same -- with great pleasure, in the places where he wrote them -- in the men`s room, at the airport. I don`t read in taxicabs, but -- and they`re wonderful stories. What I`m concerned about is his work as a scholar, his work as a professional historian. Now, remember, he characterized himself -- and I`m sure he did for you and for others -- as a storyteller. For storytellers, we know the line between fiction and truth is blurred, and that`s fine. Each storyteller adds to what other storytellers have said before.
But as a scholar -- and he was a trained scholar with a Ph.D. from Wisconsin, and he spent most of his career at the University of New Orleans as a professional historian, a teacher, and a scholar -- there are certain rules. And we subscribe to those rules. And we teach those rules to our students. And we uphold those rules. And it`s what should make us not immune to criticism but at least deferred to and respected. And when someone like Stephen Ambrose turns out to be a serial plagiarist, which is what he was from the beginning of his career, as I document in the book, then that pulls down the whole edifice the rest of us are trying to construct whereby people respect us because we follow the rules that we impose upon ourselves.
Serial plagiarist. First of all, what year did he die?
It was October of 2002, or November -- the end of October, 2002.
When he died, did he know that he was being accused of being a plagiarist?
Oh, yes. The accusations had begun at the beginning of the year, in January.
Where did the first story about him being a plagiarist start, and how did it get there?
It started in "The Weekly Standard." I`ve never seen a print version of "The Weekly Standard." I`ve read it on line.
It`s a magazine. Weekly.
Owned by Rupert Murdoch.
And it has a kind of muckrake -- or a sort of -- you know, muckrakers at the beginning of the 20th century were attacking the robber barons, the great industries, for their abuses, the way they abused their workers, they way they abused public trust, and so on. Now muckrakers more often than not are on the right, and they`re attacking the professionals and so on. So this is a muckraking journal, but it`s different from the old muckraking journals.
Edited by Bill Kristol.
Yes, who has had his own journey, as, you know, many of us -- many of us have. It`s a generation before my generation, but -- no, that`s the son, isn`t it?
Irving Kristol is his father.
Irving Kristol is the one I know. Bill Kristol -- so this is the son.
Bill Kristol`s a little younger than you.
A little younger than me? Oh, good! I`m glad. (LAUGHTER) I don`t want to -- I don`t want to age him. But this was a story that was immediately picked up. See, this is what happens with the Web, that you can plant a seed and because everyone is trolling the Web and because Google and the other search engines will pick up a term, you can plant a seed in, say, Horowitz`s "Front Page" or something like that, and all of a sudden, there are a thousand cites to it. It can be picked up. Long before anyone can start to answer a charge, it has spread in a way that direct mail or even an appearance on TV could never spread it.
And this original story, written by Fred Barnes, came in what year?
This was like January 2, 2002.
So, just before Stephen Ambrose died.
No, no, not just before.
But I mean, within a year.
Yes. Inside (ph) a year.
Yes. That is what I mean. It wasn`t ...
It was a long and hard year for Ambrose.
So, where did it come from? And what was the first story? What kind of plagiarism was it?
It was - it was a book. Ambrose had written a book based upon George McGovern and his crew`s experience as a liberator pilot in Europe, in World War II. But to fill out the story, he had used materials from other accounts. Now, these secondary works, they had in them primary sources. In other words, the historians who had written these had either oral histories or had gone to documentary sources and so on. And what Ambrose did to fill out his book is, he would take the primary sources from the other secondary sources and put them in. But not only did he take the direct quotations from the primary sources, out of the other secondary sources, he also took the prose around them, that the other historians had written.
How did he get caught?
It was - and as I recall the article - it was an anonymous tipster. And then what the "Weekly Standard" did is what we at the P.D. used to do. And that is, parallel texts. You lay the texts alongside one another and you go back and forth. And that is what I did in the book to look at Ambrose`s work. And I found not only had he taken primary sources from the other without citing properly. And the form for citing properly - I know this sounds technical - is, such-and-such as quoted in. So, you quote the primary source. Howard Goodner`s recollections of his training as quoted in, you know, "Wings of Morning." OK. So, that`s the form that you use. But if you want your work so seem much more original, and you want it to seem as though you found that primary source yourself, you quote the primary source, but you don`t say, "as quoted in." And then if you`re going to cite to "Wings of Morning," you`ll give a block citation of a number of pages, rather than the exact page where you took it.
Was he doing this on purpose?
You have to be doing it - well, you have to be doing it knowing what you`re doing. When you say, "on purpose," was - did he see himself as a serial plagiarist? No. He denied it. And persisted in denying it. He said, first of all, I was - the first thing that he said was, I was careless. I have a big table. And I have primary sources, the oral things from the Eisenhower center of veterans` recollections. I have secondary sources. And they`re all on the table. And as I`m writing, I`m going back and forth and looking at them. So, in a way, the explanation is, "I was careless." And I`ll make sure, he said, not to be that careless again.
How many people in his family worked on his books?
I think there were six. I`m trying to remember the exact number.
Sons and daughters?
Yes. It was a family enterprise. I think it was incorporated. I didn`t try to find the papers of incorporation, but one of the news stories said it was incorporated. And I believe it wasn`t - it wasn`t the sort of facetious Ambrose, Inc. It actually was incorporated.
Who wrote "Wings of Morning"?
Is this where his main source was for all this?
No, it was a Pennsylvania historian of ...
It`s in your book.
... German history. Yes, ...
It`s in your book.
... it`s in the book.
Let me switch, because time goes by. I want to get the second story out. We can have time to go back on some of this. And I want to show, again, a little clip of Joseph Ellis talking about "American Sage," a book he wrote on John Adams. Here`s Joseph Ellis. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
I`m most interested, really, in bringing Adams to life for a general public. While I certainly want to have my "i`s" dotted and my "t`s" crossed, and I want this to be a critical success as a scholarly book, I`m most interested in getting it to a group of people who are not professional historians, but read biography. (END VIDEO CLIP)
What are you hearing there?
Well, this is when he made a choice. His choice was to move from pretty technical stuff on American authors and American culture in this period, to looking at great men. It`s mainstream history. Adams sells. Jefferson sells. Any new book on these people will always get attention. If you go to the Smithsonian bookstore or the Museum of American History, I went down to the bookstore. And there are all the Benjamin Franklin books that have come out in the past three years. All of them. And they`re all selling. The Isaacson book, and the Morgan book and Gordon Wood`s book and H.W. Brand`s. But they`re all selling there. And there - you know, there should be like a Benjamin Franklin shelf, an Adams shelf, of course, David McCullough`s book won the Pulitzer Prize for biography. So, there`s always a - now the Hamilton books are starting to come out. It was Joanne Freeman at Columbia. And now - what`s his name - Chernow.
Right. And so on. And there were - so, there are shelves. So, he`s made - he`s made a choice that enables him to speak to a much wider audience.
He - David McCullough says that "The American Sage," by Joseph Ellis, was one of the reasons that he wrote his John Adams book.
They`re very different books.
But it triggered his interest.
Well, I mean, he`d already written about Truman, right. I mean, why do you need your interest triggered on Adams? I mean, it`s clear that McCullough really likes Adams. It`s not clear that Ellis particularly likes Adams. What Ellis is doing is a much more critical kind of a biography. And it was true of all of his writing about the founding fathers.
But you don`t write about - much about the John Adams thing. You write about just the fellows at Mt. Holyoke. Why?
Well, I wrote a book about Adams and Jefferson called - I`m trying to remember the title of my own book, it came out in `83 - "The Revolutionary Generation." And it was about - get a plug in for it now - it was about many of the things that Ellis wrote about. I actually didn`t compare, I did not lay my text alongside of Ellis` text, although we do talk about similar things. Most of the time, working historians accept the fact that other working historians, kind of professional courtesy, are developing their own ideas and using their own sources, and so on. Ellis was not a big citer of other people`s work, secondary sources. If you go and you look at his footnotes, even though he`s writing about people that have been written about by my - least of all, by me - but by many, many other scholars, you find very little in the way of secondary source references. Almost all his references are to the original documents, the letters, the papers, in usually published, sometimes unpublished, collections.
But your original reason in here for writing about him isn`t plagiarism, is it? It`s something else.
No. It`s the fact that he - he was a wonderful storyteller about himself. And some of those stories were not true.
Like, what did he tell?
Oh, he talked about his service in Vietnam. I don`t know if he`s ever been to Vietnam, but he certainly wasn`t there during the Vietnam War. He spent the time at West Point. And then, during the latter part of the war, he had a job at Mt. Holyoke. So, he not only invented service in Vietnam, he invented combat service in Vietnam, in an elite military unit. He invented other things about his life, which are kind of extensions. I mean, he was in the military. He was teaching at West Point and in uniform, in military service. He actually did help train people to participate in the civil rights movement, but he embroidered that story, sending himself through the South as a - putting himself in personal peril. He - I mean, these were stories that sort of - the kind of life you`d like to have lived.
Is Mt. Holyoke an all-women`s college?
So, he`s teaching all women for how many years, telling them stories about his service in Vietnam that wasn`t true?
Well, he wasn`t - first of all, I don`t know when these stories about Vietnam began. No one has actually pinpointed that. And one thing that I did is, I treated all of the subjects that I was treating as though they were historical subjects. I didn`t pick up the phone to ask them, gee, Professor Ellis. When did you first start telling these stories? I think the first time he started telling the stories, though, was in the 1990s. Some of the people that I did talk to about other things suggest the first time they heard them, sort of before the historical panel met, before the talk happened, was in the early 1990s.
How did this story of his storytelling come to light?
It was a "Boston Globe Story." I think a guy named - a journalist named - Robinson, I think, ...
... broke the story. A pretty - you know, I`ve asked about him. He`s a terrific reputation as a journalist and … guy.
But how did he find out?
And if it hadn`t of been for the tip to Walter Robinson, we still ...
And it hadn`t been ...
... to this day would not know that those students at Mt. Holyoke were being taught ...
Well, it`s not just Mt. Holyoke. He was also teaching a - he was teaching a course in American culture in the Vietnam era. And he was not just teaching it at Mt. Holyoke, he was also teaching - you know, there are a whole group of colleges there in the valley. And I think he was also teaching at Amherst. But, you know, you have graduate students from U. Mass who you`re teaching, and so on.
Why did this get your attention? And why did you write about it in ...
Same problem. Here we are trying to establish ourselves as authorities, because of our training, because of our intensely self-imposed professional ethic. And here is someone who`s really at the top of our profession, who`s honored with all these prizes, with the National Book Award, with the Pulitzer Prize, who I used to watch with great pleasure on C-SPAN. Because, as you could see from that clip, he`s a very engaging person to listen to and a very, very fine writer. And his stuff is certainly worth reading. And he just sort of pulls down the building.
Why do you think he did it?
Again, this was something we began with. Motive is so hard. Actually, there are two kinds of motives you could supply. One is a kind of arrogance. I can do this if I want. It`s not that no one will catch me. It`s that I have confidence in my power to manipulate words, images. I`m in front of classes. I can hold them, enthralled with these stories. A kind of arrogance. The possible flip side of that is a kind of lack of confidence. In his case, he really didn`t - he wasn`t a combat soldier. He wasn`t there on the frontlines in the civil rights movement. A kind of - and not really the heroic character, and so on, that I could have been, that others were. And now that`s gone by, and I`ve lost that. Well, let me reinvent myself.
What happened to him?
After a period of denial by Mt. Holyoke, they formed a grievance committee. He agreed to step down for a year. He wasn`t teaching. I believe he was deprived of his chair. I don`t know whether he has it back. I know he`s teaching again. So, after the year. And he`s reviewing again for the "New York Times." I read a book review of his in the "New York Times." The "Los Angeles Times." His op-ed pieces are being published, which is not so easy to do, in the Times. And he has a big, big book coming out on his - I think it`s called, "His Excellency," from Knopf. And I`m looking forward to reading it, because I read his stuff and I enjoy his stuff.
Would you want your son or sons or daughters, or whatever, being taught by him today?
I just have - I have two sons. And William James, when he was at Johns Hopkins, and when he was at Harvard Law School, one of his professors at Harvard Law School was Lawrence Tribe. And it turns out that Lawrence Tribe, who we know has written many books - and I like the books, and I think that they`re very authoritative - may not have done all the research, or much of the research, for those books. It may have been done by research assistants like William James, although William James was not one - that`s my son, William James Hoffer - he was not one of Tribe`s assistants. But when the research assistants do the research for someone like Tribe, they also write up their results. So it may be that Tribe is just a compiler. And, no, I would not - I - William James and I have talked about this. And how can you stand up in front of a group of people as an author, when actually you`re a compiler? So, I would have told William James, take someone else for constitutional law. William James also has very, very strong standards of personal morality and professional ethics, and he was very upset about this, because he thought very highly of Tribe.
The third one we have a clip of is Doris Kearns Goodwin. Let`s watch what she had to say. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
I do television at home, so people are much more aware, because I do local commentary for our ABC affiliate in Boston, and do a weekly television show, which I`ve done for 12 years. When we go on the streets, people will know me from that, so the kids are sort of queasy about getting stopped all the time. (END VIDEO CLIP)
Now, she`s a - since that time, that was 10 years ago, she went on to do MSNBC, "Meet the Press," the Don Imus show and things like that. And ...
And most recently ...
... the Jim Lehrer show.
And she no longer does the Lehrer show, but she`s back doing the rest of them. What went on with Doris Kearns Goodwin?
Well, Doris Kearns Goodwin had research assistants. And those research assistants would look at the primary sources for her two major books, "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys" and "No Ordinary Time," which is a sort of a dual biography of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt in World War II. A huge amount of documentary material. Very hard to do 20th century history. I mean, the amount of material that we can look at, doing 18th century history, is limited. When I do 20th century legal history, which I also do, the amount of material is so voluminous, sometimes I wish I had research assistants. I don`t use research assistants. On the other hand, of course, my wife is also a professional historian and a law professor. My son is a - and I often collaborate with them. Well, her research assistants did not make the kinds of distinctions between primary sources and secondary sources, and material that was being quoted and material that was being paraphrased. And what she says is, what happened is that those materials got into the book improperly sourced, improperly cited. She made a private settlement with someone from whom she had taken a lot of material in the ...
... yes - who is a, who`s a popular writer who didn`t, by the way, do lots of citations and lots of - there are no footnotes in the book, as I recall. And what Goodwin said was, I apologize. The mistake is mine, because my name is on - she said it was the research assistants who had made the mistake, but the mistake is hers. And she`s absolutely right, because her name is on the book. And she said she`s learned from that experience in the 1980s not to make the same mistake in the 1990s, but it turns out that there are passages in "No Ordinary Time," that have the same problem. And then, when that was raised, I think in a "Los Angeles Times" piece, which actually started to do side-by-side comparisons, based upon her extensive footnotes. And they said, wait a second. What you have here is close paraphrase, where, in fact, you`re actually doing everything but quoting someone else.
How did the story about Doris Kearns Goodwin first surface?
The "Weekly Standard" has not informed me of why this, of why this tip came. But presumably, it was because it was on the heels of the Ambrose story.
But you also give credit to a "Forbes" reporter.
Well, but the "Forbes" - the "Forbes" online came in afterwards. And they started with - they said, in a limited way, we can`t do all of these. They started to do the parallel text comparisons. And they started to find more and more. Now, the problem with this is that, again, Goodwin, like Tribe, is misusing assistants, overusing assistants. Look, scholarship is two things. It is doing the research and it is writing it up. When you get research assistants - I don`t care whether they`re your family or your friends or you pay for them or they`re your students who are in your seminar who got in an A in your first-year course - and they start doing your doing your research, you`re not a scholar any more. You`re sort of running a research corporation. It`s a different kind of enterprise. And then, when they start writing up their findings and you go over it and you compile them, then it`s a bigger kind of plagiarism than just the mistakes that they`re making and not putting quotation marks, or not putting the full citation.
What`s happened to Doris Kearns Goodwin in all of this?
Nothing. I mean, I guess she`s not on the Pulitzer Prize board any more. I assume that that`s so. But ...
Should anything happen?
She doesn`t have an academic affiliation. Nor did Ambrose. He had retired. They have moved from sort of the ranks of academic scholars into that larger area of public intellectual/popular historian.
So, plagiarism`s OK now, then?
Of course not. But how do you - how do you - I mean, it`s not OK. But it goes on all the time. The cases that we see, in my opinion, from the - I get a lot of sort of quiet inquiries. People send them to me, or individuals send them to me, and we talk. What we`re seeing is the tip of the iceberg. Now, sometimes it`s casual, it`s momentary, it`s a mistake that`s been made. But now you`re beginning - now that we`ve become aware of it, you`re seeing many, many more cases outed. Architecture books, which turn out to plagiarize entire pieces of other architecture books. Law professors` works that lift political scientists` earlier essays, and so on. So, the answer may be that the public historians are now going to face more scrutiny.
The last story is Michael Beschloss?
What was it? What was his book about?
His book was about guns. It`s called "Arming America." Its publisher, Knopf, put on a huge spread for it. It was reviewed in all the major trades (ph). And the reviews were, in the main, the initial reviews were glowing. Because what Michael Beschloss, who was then professor of history at Emory University, and the head of a institute on violence in America, what he had found, he claimed, was that there were very few guns in early America. That`s rifles as well as handguns.
He went back to probate records, you say.
Well, many things. Probate records, ...
... travel accounts and so on - supposedly. And he found very few guns. The ones that he found were not in good working order, and people didn`t know how to use them. And when the militia was mustered, it didn`t know what it was doing. And when it was called upon to fight, it fought very badly. And the importance of this argument was, it becomes part of the debate over the Second Amendment and the original meaning of the Second Amendment, and whether the Second Amendment talks about a well-ordered militia, or it`s talking about individual rights and gun control. And the real origin of the book, I think, was an article written in the late 1980s, by a very, very wonderful and brilliant law professor at Texas named Sanford Levinson. And what Levinson said - and he`s for gun control - but what he said was that if you read the amendment in its context, it really is about individual rights.
How did we learn about Michael Beschloss` plagiarism?
Well, he - no, he didn`t plagiarize.
No, that`s right. It`s not plagiarism. What would you call it? Just ...
... fabricated, OK. How did we learn that?
The first person to go after him was a man named Clayton Cramer, who had been corresponding with him. He was an electrical engineer, I think. He was also a member of the NRA, and an advocate for NRA - this is National Rifle Association.
And this had all been done online?
This had been - much of this had been done online. They had been working sort of the way historians and students do. Cramer was getting a master`s in history at one of the California state schools. And then Beschloss published an article in "The Journal of American History," which is the leading journal for American historians, which sort of gave a pre-see (ph) of what the first half of "Arming America" would look like. And Cramer said, you know, that doesn`t sound right to me, because the travel accounts, and so on, where he says there are no guns, five pages later there are lots of guns. So it sounds like he`s evidence mining, which historians sometimes do to make a point. And, clearly, the article was making a point. The book follows from the article. The book relies, and Beschloss says he`s relying, upon new evidence from probate records. And the probate records, which are inventories of a dead person`s estate, show very few, working firearms. And this is from colonial, revolutionary, early national period.
Well, folks went back to those probate records, and they didn`t find those results at all. Beschloss was saying 14 percent of them, 16 percent of them, had guns in them. All the old studies, Alice Hanson Jones and so on, had found 45 percent, 50 percent. When people went back to the archives, the courthouses he said he used, they found 45 percent, 50 percent. He denied, he claimed that he was being personally assaulted, that he was being attacked by the NRA, played a kind of shell game. Whenever anyone got too close, it was the NRA who was attacking him. There were many people, including the people who had originally reviewed his book, people like - wonderful historians like Jack Rakov (ph) and Paul Finkleman, first-rate historians - who, with professional courtesy, and because they also found the Second Amendment argument compelling, they initially supported him. And then the support began to fall away. And Emory University reached out to the professional division shortly before I went on it, and asked if we would ...
Of the AHA ...
... hear the case. Of the AHA.
Yes. American Historical Association.
Right. And we said, well, our rules are, you have to make a complaint. Someone has to make a complaint, and then we`ll hear the case. Well, they weren`t willing to make a complaint, so we didn`t hear the case. In the end, they impaneled a blue ribbon group of three historians. The three historians found all the kinds of fabrication. What`s more, they were unhappy with Beschloss answers. And they said that there was serious professional misconduct amounting to fraud. Emory was beginning to take steps against him when he resigned, saying he couldn`t get a fair hearing. He is now living quietly and privately. As far as I know, he has no academic affiliation.
But you said that they published the paperback version of the book.
They had brought out a paperback version in 2001. But then they refused to bring out a revised version in 2003, because they, according to the editor, Jane Garrett at Knopf, they didn`t feel that his answers to the charges were adequate. In a simple statement, they had terminated their relationship with him.
We only have less than a minute. What`s - how do you - when you travel through your historian community now, after you`ve written this book, what`s their reaction to it?
The historians that I`ve spoken to, they`re really intrigued by it. Because most of the time, we`re just working so hard that we don`t have time to think about these things, so I`ve gotten a wonderful reception from them. They seem very pleased by it. The journalists that I`ve talked to about the book all focus on the charges of misconduct. So, they`re narrowing to telling this one particular story and what it means for the future of history. Just as you asked, can we do nothing?
This book is called "Past Imperfect: Facts, Fiction, Fraud - American History From Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Beschloss, Ellis and Goodwin." Our guest is Peter Charles Hoffer, University of Georgia history professor. Thank you very much for joining us.