Kudos to the good people at the New York Historical Society for looking beyond the past sins of plagiarism committed by Doris Kearns Goodwin and bestowing on the prolific celebrity historian a prestigious award and $50,000 prize in honor of her recent biography of Abe Lincoln, "Team of Rivals."
On Wednesday the society announced that it was naming Goodwin "American History Laureate" and was giving her its inaugural book prize, which apparently carries a price tag of fifty grand.
In her book, Goodwin makes the groundbreaking assertion that Lincoln was a heckuva manager because he named smart people to his cabinet even if they disagreed with him. Obviously it's a theme she knew was likely to resonate today in light of George W. Bush's much discussed desire to surround himself with yes-men.
Now to be fair I'll admit I haven't read the book, just the criticism (for instance, Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times called it "appealing but awkward.") To be honest I haven't looked at a single word Goodwin's written since January 2002, when I came across this story in The Weekly Standard, which outed her as a serial plagiarist who actually was forced to reach an "understanding" with one author she ripped off. (In other words, Goodwin paid off a lesser-known historian to prevent her good name from being smeared.)
Goodwin's so popular with her highly respected colleagues that nearly two years after the plagiarism scandal broke several prominent historians and media folks -- everyone from Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to Walter Isaacson -- actually signed a letter to the New York Times asserting that she didn't plagiarize anyone. You can make your own call, but in my mind Slate columnist Timothy Noah pretty much pantsed them in this column that ran shortly after the letter appeared.
As someone who spent five years personally transcribing hundreds of hours of interviews for a recent oral history of Wall Street, you'll forgive me if I consider a noted and highly paid historian repeatedly committing plagiarism a serious crime of authorship. In my mind it's unconscionable that an institution like the New York Historical Society would be feting someone like Goodwin with awards and prizes after such disgraceful revelations, particularly when there are so many other historians and writers deserving of recognition. But hey, what do I know?
In a media world populated by Jayson Blairs and Stephen Glasses, by Armstrong Williamses and Ben Domenechs, I guess I should consider it refreshing that even in the academic history community shit floats. Hell, we all might as well pitch in and give Doris a cool million if it turns out every word in the thing's hers. God knows she deserves it.
ADDENDUM (originally posted as a comment):
Taking a look at the comments below, I think this piece is being wildly misconstrued. If I'd wanted to promote my own book (which came out eight months ago and is past its promotion cycle) I'd have named it in the post. I only brought it up to show that I've been through a similar grueling process as Goodwin and wrestled with real plagiarism issues. Call it what you want, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...
As for claims of sour grapes, this was my first book and I'd have to be delusional to think I was in competition for that award. My point is that in 2005 there were many more deserving history books by authors who didn't come with serious plagiarism baggage. Off the top of my head "1776" by David McCullough and "Bury the Chains" by Adam Hochschild come to mind. And if I wanted to, I'm sure I could list five or six others. In fact, if anyone wants more suggestions of great reading let me know - I'll be happy to recommend something not by me or Doris Kearns Goodwin.