If you hadn’t heard, Craig Shirley has been making the rounds accusing historian Rick Perlstein of plagiarism. For the record, I purchased a copy of The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan but haven’t started reading yet. Most non-partisan writers, and several partisan writers have disagreed: historians quite frequently paraphrase from their sources, it is how we are taught to write! Perlstein didn’t omit references, just made them available on-line instead of as footnotes or endnotes, nor did Perstein borrow more than a word or two at time. In other words, the accusation seems to be mostly without merit from where I slouch.
Mostly the accusations seem to stem from Perlstein’s lack of hero worship for Ronald Reagan, the so-called patron saint of the Republican Party1.
So if you are at all interested in history of American politics, you might want to purchase a copy of Mr. Perlstein’s book before the pitchfork brandishing hordes manage to storm the ramparts of Amazon.com’s warehouses and burn the books that dare present a nuanced portrait of anyone so holy as Ronald “Bombing Begins in Five Minutes” Reagan.
Some coverage that caught my eye includes:
Frank Rich reviews the book:
Next to the more apocalyptic spells of American history, the dismal span of 1973 to 1976 would seem a relative blip of national dyspepsia. A period that yielded the blandest of modern presidents, Gerald Ford — “a Ford, not a Lincoln,” as he circumspectly described himself — is not to be confused with cataclysmic eras like the Civil War, the Great Depression and the Vietnam ‘60s. The major mid-70s disruptions — the Watergate hearings and Richard Nixon’s abdication, Roe v. Wade, the frantic American evacuation of Saigon, stagflation, the dawn of the “energy crisis” (then a newly minted term) — were adulterated with a steady stream of manufactured crises and cheesy cultural phenomena. Americans suffered through the threat of killer bees, “Deep Throat,” the Symbionese Liberation Army, a national meat boycott, “The Exorcist,” Moonies and the punishing self-help racket est, to which a hustler named Werner Erhard (né Jack Rosenberg) attracted followers as diverse as the Yippie Jerry Rubin and the Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Even the hapless would-be presidential assassins of the Ford years, Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, were B-list villains by our national standards of infamy.
“I must say to you that the state of our Union is not good,” our unelected president told the nation in January 1975. That was true enough. America’s largest city was going bankrupt. Urban crime was metastasizing. The C.I.A. was exposed as a snake pit of lethal illegality. The nostalgic canonization of the Kennedy presidency, the perfect antidote to the Nixon stench, was befouled by the revelation of Jack Kennedy’s mob-moll paramour. Yet the mood of the union was not so much volatile as defeated, whiny and riddled by self-doubt. As Americans slouched toward the Bicentennial celebrations of July 4, 1976, pundits were wondering whether the country even deserved to throw itself a birthday party. “Everyone wanted to be somewhere else,” Rick Perlstein writes in “The Invisible Bridge.”
It says much about Perlstein’s gifts as a historian that he persuasively portrays this sulky, slender interlude between the fall of Nixon and the rise of Reagan (as his subtitle has it) not just as a true bottom of our history but also as a Rosetta stone for reading America and its politics today. It says much about his talent as a writer that he makes these years of funk lively, engrossing and on occasion mordantly funny. Perlstein knows how to sift through a culture’s detritus for the telling forgotten detail. Leave it to him to note that the WIN buttons peddled by Ford to promote a desperate “Whip Inflation Now” campaign were “designed by the same guy who invented the yellow ‘smiley face.’ ” Or to recall that the Republican Party tried to combat its dire post-Watergate poll numbers by producing “Republicans Are People Too!,” three fund-raising network television specials starring “everyday Republicans who want to tell why they have stuck with the G.O.P.” Competing against “M*A*S*H” in prime time, the second installment brought in $5,515. The third never ran.
(click here to continue reading ‘The Invisible Bridge,’ by Rick Perlstein – NYTimes.com.)
Jesse Walker from Reason Magazine:
Craig Shirley, the author of two books on Ronald Reagan, has sicced his lawyer on Rick Perlstein, whose ’70s history The Invisible Bridge was published by Simon & Schuster this week. Shirley’s attorney is demanding that the publisher pulp Perlstein’s book, pay $25 million in damages, and take out ads apologizing to Shirley in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, The Nation, The New Republic, Slate, and Salon.
What provoked these demands? Basically, the 810 pages of The Invisible Bridge include some information that can also be found in Shirley’s book Reagan’s Revolution, and in some places Perlstein paraphrases Shirley. Shirley thinks this constitutes copyright infringement. If you’d like to read the bill of particulars, Dave Weigel has posted the attorney’s letters and Simon & Schuster’s response at Slate, and Shirley himself has posted a litany of alleged thefts on his website.
In the first item on the latter list, the two books do sound alike: Describing the red-light district in Kansas City, Perlstein echoes not just the info in Shirley’s text but Shirley’s words “festooned” and “smut peddlers.” After that, though, we essentially get a list of places where the two writers cited the same facts. Facts are not copyrightable, and one pair of similar sentences does not an infringement make. I don’t see a dollar’s worth of damages here, let alone 25 million
(click here to continue reading Copyright Absurdity: Reagan Biographer Gets Paraphrased, Demands $25 Million – Hit & Run : Reason.com.)
Dave Weigel from Slate:
This just isn’t what happens when Rick Perlstein releases a book. The first in his series, 2001’s Before the Storm, was praised by William F. Buckley. George Will called it “the best book yet on the social ferments that produced Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential candidacy”—in a largely positive review of Perlstein’s second book, Nixonland, which became a best-seller. What changed? This time Perlstein is writing about Ronald Reagan.
Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan—Perlstein has moved from covering a minor saint, to a martyr, to God. Thirteen years ago, when Perlstein profiled Goldwater’s movement, there had been only one recent biography of the Arizonan. There will be at least half a dozen new Reagan books this year alone, everything from a deep dive into the 1986 Reykjavik summit to a collection of leadership tips. Perlstein is challenging an image of the 40th president that is built on many such books, celebrated at Republican county dinners, and quoted by everyone from Ted Cruz (in his arguments for conservative revival) to Joe Scarborough (in his argument that no one should listen to Cruz).
Yes, technically, The Invisible Bridge is a history of January 1973 to August 1976, and Reagan’s own presidential campaign does not start until Page 546 (of 810). But in Perlstein’s telling, Reagan was the essential figure who understood that Americans wanted to revise their history in real time. The Invisible Bridge starts with Operation Homecoming, the negotiated release of Vietnam POWs that was preceded by years of patriotic kitsch. Perlstein recreates the mood by quoting copiously from letters to the editor, from columnists, POW speeches and TV broadcasts. He recalls that it was future right-wing Rep. Bob Dornan who came up with yellow armbands as trinkets of POW solidarity, and recovers forgotten tidbits about them, like how “a Wimbledon champ said that one cured his tennis elbow.”
(click here to continue reading Rick Perlstein’s book on Reagan: The Invisible Bridge, reviewed..)
Eric Boehlert of Media Matters:
Right-wing publicist and author Craig Shirley doesn’t like a new book about Ronald Reagan written by award-winning (and liberal) historian Rick Perlstein. So the conservative publicist has threatened to sue for $25 million in damages and has asked for all copies of the book to be “destroyed,” claiming that with Invisible Bridge: The Fall Of Richard Nixon And The Rise of Ronald Reagan, Perlstein’s guilty of plagiarism for paraphrasing facts Shirley had previously reported in his own book about Reagan.
But of course, paraphrasing is not the basis for copyright infringement and that’s certainly not what constitutes plagiarism.
Meanwhile, for a best-selling author himself, Shirley seems to have little understanding of copyright law.
He seems to think that because he wrote a detailed book on a chapter of Reagan’s political life (his failed 1976 presidential campaign), every writer who subsequently treads that same ground must credit Shirley because he was there first. But that’s not how it works. “Any similarity between facts in non-fiction books – even if first reported by Mr. Shirley – does not support a claim of copyright infringement,” wrote attorney Elizabeth McNarama, responding on behalf of Perlstein and his publisher.
Your client’s claim rests on the misguided notion that chroniclers of history, like Mr. Shirley, somehow acquire ownership and control over the facts and events they may uncover. This premise collides directly with the most basic principles of copyright law and is contrary to the very fundamentals of historical reporting.
The behind-the-scenes maneuvering suggests Shirley’s plagiarism claim doesn’t represent a serious pursuit. Instead it’s a way for Shirley to draw attention to his own work and to make life difficult for an esteemed liberal writer chronicling a conservative icon.
(click here to continue reading Ann Coulter’s Publicist Launches “Offensive” Against Historian Rick Perlstein | Blog | Media Matters for America.)
Paul Krugman weighs in, speaking from personal experience:
OK, this is grotesque. Rick Perlstein has a new book, continuing his awesomely informative history of the rise of movement conservatism — and he’s facing completely spurious charges of plagiarism.
How do we know that they’re spurious? The people making the charges — almost all of whom have, surprise, movement conservative connections — aren’t pointing to any actual passages that, you know, were lifted from some other book. Instead, they’re claiming that Perlstein paraphrased what other people said. Um, what? Unless there’s a very close match, telling more or less the same story someone else has told before is perfectly ordinary — in fact, it would be distressing if history books didn’t correspond on some things.
(click here to continue reading Sliming Rick Perlstein – NYTimes.com.)
David Dayen at Salon:
Simon & Schuster responded to the letters here, by arguing that “any similarity between facts in non-fiction books – even if first reported by Mr. Shirley – does not support a claim of copyright infringement.” In fact, it’s self-evident that facts should remain similar over the course of histories of the same time period. Perlstein believes he merely built upon the historical record that Shirley helped register in his work. “He doesn’t like the way I do history,” Perlstein told Salon. “He thinks that if he digs up facts by the sweat of his brow that nobody else can use them. In fact, courts have used that exact phrase, ‘sweat of the brow,’ to say that there’s no copyright protection for such facts.”
In many cases, Simon & Schuster notes, Shirley alleges copyright infringement based on third-party quotes found in other sources. For example, Shirley claims that Perlstein stole a quote of Nancy Reagan’s from him without attribution, even though the quote appears differently in the two books. In Shirley’s, Nancy says “That’s what I like to hear”; in Perlstein’s, she says “Now that is the kind of talk I like to hear.” The quotes differ because Perlstein got it from a different book called “PR as in President” by Victor Gold, which is whom he cited in his source notes.
In another allegation, about a hotel manager threatening to throw out the Pennsylvania delegation at the 1976 GOP convention, Perlstein’s source is Time magazine, not Shirley (although he gives secondary attribution to Shirley anyway). Shirley even tries to claim copyright on a CBS News report of the number of delegates that Gerald Ford had attained near the end of the 1976 primaries.
A final claim of Shirley’s reveals too much. Shirley says Perlstein stole his line about Reagan watching the chaotic last night of the 1976 convention on television, “dissolved in laughter” (which is cited). But Shirley doesn’t add the line in “The Invisible Bridge” that comes afterward: “Then, he saw a televised image of himself on television watching it on television – that doesn’t look good – and his smile disappeared.” This additional insight, building on previous work and incorporating this cunning quality to Reagan, also came from a contemporaneous report in the Atlanta Daily World. As Dave Weigel writes, “In Shirley’s version of the story, Reagan was underrated once again; in Perlstein’s, he is underrated but calculating.”
So Shirley, who as a right-wing operative and professional Reagan biographer is naturally protective of Reagan’s legacy, and doesn’t want a book to rise to prominence that calls him into question for any reason, has basically thrown every allegation up against the wall to see if something sticks. He claims plagiarism over inconsequential, ordinary short phrases. He claims plagiarism over quotes that other people said. He claims plagiarism on passages where Perlstein specifically attributes Shirley’s book.
(click here to continue reading The right’s “plagiarism” scam: How low it will stoop to protect Reagan’s legacy – Salon.com.)
and after the New York Times published a “he said, he said” article about the ginned-up controversy, the NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan weighed in, concluding:
My take: There’s a problem here. An article about polarized reaction to a high-profile book is, of course, fair game. But the attention given to the plagiarism accusation is not.
Yes, the claim was “out there” but so are smears of all kinds as well as claims that the earth is flat and that climate change is unfounded. This one comes from the author of a book on the same subject with an opposing political orientation. By taking it seriously, The Times conferred a legitimacy on the accusation it would not otherwise have had.
And while it is true that Mr. Perlstein and his publisher were given plenty of opportunity to respond, that doesn’t help much. It’s as if The Times is saying: “Here’s an accusation; here’s a denial; and, heck, we don’t really know. We’re staying out of it.” Readers frequently complain to me about this he said, she said false equivalency — and for good reason.
So I’m with the critics. The Times article amplified a damaging accusation of plagiarism without establishing its validity and doing so in a way that is transparent to the reader. The standard has to be higher.
(click here to continue reading Was an Accusation of Plagiarism Really a Political Attack? – NYTimes.com.)Footnotes:
- despite his oft-stated differences with the policies of the current bunch of Tea-Bagger jokers who chant Reagan’s name like it will ward off evil liberals, communists, and immigrants [↩]