What a bad time it has been for the nation’s best-known historians—that is, for the small number of historical writers, some affiliated with academic institutions and some not, whose books regularly inhabit the bestseller lists, whose faces frequently appear on television, and whose speaking fees reach well into the five figures. The entire roster consists of six people: Stephen E. Ambrose, Michael Beschloss, Joseph J. Ellis, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, and Edmund Morris. All but Morris have recently been accused, in widely read publications and in some cases on talk shows, of offenses ranging from incompetence and superficiality to plagiarism and outright fabrication. Morris had his own spell of notoriety three years ago, when he published a “semi-fictional” (his term) biography of Ronald Reagan.
The natural inclination, when a related cluster of events occurs, is to draw a Big Lesson from it. In this case, the leading contender seems to be that real history is written by unknown but careful scholars whose main reward is the satisfaction of a job well done (and of course tenure). Perhaps there is such a lesson to be drawn from the controversies concerning Ambrose, Beschloss, Ellis, Goodwin, McCullough, and Morris. But let’s suspend the impulse to say so for the moment, and instead take a close look at what happened to each of them.
Like the others, Michael Beschloss and David McCullough have been pilloried, but in their case for no good reason at all. Each is the author of several thoroughly researched, deeply insightful, and wonderfully well-written works of American history. Each published an excellent book in 2001. Beschloss’s Reaching Glory: Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964—1965 is the second in a three-volume series of carefully edited and expertly annotated transcripts of tape recordings from the Johnson administration. McCullough’s biography, John Adams, is a worthy successor to his 1992 award-winning volume, Truman. Yet each writer was, and not for the first time, the target of an intellectual mugging.
To be sure, McCullough was guilty of one sin, which students and alumni of the University of Virginia may be excused for regarding as mortal but which most other readers probably will classify as venial. As Richard N. Rosenfeld pointed out in the September 2001 issue of Harper’s, McCullough attributed a “nonexistent quotation” to Thomas Jefferson, namely, that Adams was “the colossus of independence.” McCullough admitted the mistake. No other factual errors have been pointed out in his 736-page book.
The real assault on McCullough came in Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz’s lengthy review of John Adams in the July 2, 2001, issue of The New Republic. Wilentz treated McCullough and his book as Plaintiff’s Exhibit A in the case of academic history versus popular history. In recent decades, Wilentz noted approvingly, academic historians have been busy pursuing a “historiography of national self-reckoning,” focusing critically on “the history of labor, women, . . .slavery and race relations.” Their goal has been for American history “to rattle its readers, not to confirm them in their popular myths and platitudes about America.”
Unfortunately, Wilentz lamented, most readers outside the professoriate don’t like being rattled. And so they have turned instead to writers like McCullough who offer them “popular history as passive nostalgic spectacle.” It’s bad enough, Wilentz suggested, that McCullough’s highest academic degree is a B.A. from Yale and that he spent years writing for magazines like Time and American Heritage, the latter “a quirky grab bag of fascinating but undemanding features . . . [whose] style came to dominate the writing of non-academic American history books.” Still worse is that, “thanks to public television, McCullough has become the handsome, authoritative face of American history—and, with his pleasantly weathered baritone, the voice of American history.” For reasons he doesn’t explain, Wilentz concludes that “all this” has “accompanied—no, it has required—[McCullough to] move into historical realms that are unsuited to his strengths as a writer.”
Two-thirds of the way into his review, after pausing to take swings at both the Ken Burns Civil War series (“crushingly vacuous and sentimental in its historic judgments”) and “the egregious advent of the “presidential historian,” a hitherto unknown scholarly species whose chief function is to offer television viewers anodyne tidbits of historical trivia that seem pertinent to current political events, and to look and sound remarkable when doing so,” Wilentz turned to John Adams itself. The substance of his complaint was that McCullough had focused on Adams’s character, liked what he saw, and written “merely another valentine.” The first “valentine,” wrote Wilentz, quoting an old Ronald Steel review in The New Republic, had been Truman.
Wilentz did not mention Michael Beschloss in his article, but Beschloss was surely the remarkable-looking and remarkable-sounding “presidential historian” at whom the professor directed his scorn. Like McCullough, Beschloss is an attractive, pleasant-voiced man who appears frequently on television. Like McCullough, Beschloss has no graduate degrees in history and holds no faculty appointment. Like McCullough, Beschloss writes books that lots of people buy, read, and enjoy. And like McCullough, Beschloss has recently been singled out for criticism as an intellectual lightweight in the pages of The New Republic. “Beschloss,” wrote Noam Scheiber in the magazine’s Nov.13, 2000, issue, “who is ostensibly on television because of his ability as a historian, not only doesn’t put that ability to use on the tube; he barely puts it to use at all.”
Finding an intellectual perch high enough for academic historians to drip disdain on Beschloss has been no easy task. All of his books are models of thorough research, riveting writing, careful consideration of the documentary record, and judicious use of interviews conducted by Beschloss himself. The more common response of reviewers in scholarly journals over the years has been to condescend. For example:
We do not learn too much that is new, but it is an exceptional performance for a scholar only briefly away from his undergraduate work.” (Professor Alfred Rollins, reviewing Beschloss’s first book, Kennedy and Roosevelt: The Uneasy Alliance, for the Journal of American History.)
As the dust-jacket blurbs proclaim, this is a “good read.” . . . [Scholars, however, ] may be bemused by the discussion of Eisenhower’s wardrobe in chapter 1, the potted biography of Khrushchev in chapter 7, and generally mystified by a seemingly random excursion through the wheat and chaff of the U-2 affair.” (Professor Jack Snyder, reviewing Mayday: Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and the U-2 Affair for the Russian Review.)
The author aimed at writing both a best seller and a serious history. He has succeeded at the first.” (Professor Carl Kaysen, reviewing The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963 for Political Science Quarterly.)
Perhaps the oddest criticism of any of Beschloss’s books came from a group of political scientists writing in Presidential Studies Quarterly about the first volume of Johnson recordings that Beschloss edited: Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963—1964. Professor Terry Sullivan and a team of his graduate students at the University of North Carolina took Beschloss to task for, of all things, exercising judgment in choosing which of the endless hours of presidential conversations to include in the book. “Beschloss’s rendition of the president’s concerns. . .,” they charged, “overemphasized international involvement, particularly transcribing more than twice as many conversations on Vietnam as necessary.”
Need one say more in response to this criticism than that an essential component of the historian’s craft is to exercise judgment about what is important? As Beschloss notes—uncontroversially, one would think—”My chief standard in deciding which conversations to include in the book is whether they add something of historical importance to what we knew before.”
The criticisms of Beschloss, like those of McCullough, reflect more on the critics than on the author. Academic historians seem to have three problems with Beschloss. Problem number one is that he isn’t a member of the guild. Not only does he lack a Ph. D. in history, he majored in political science as an undergraduate and his graduate degree is in business. Newsweek may think it is praising Beschloss when it calls him “the nation’s leading presidential historian.” But praise like that is the kiss of death among academics.
Shame on the professors. In the academic world as in the larger world, turfmanship is a certain path to insularity—in this case, historians writing only for fellow historians and erecting walls of condescension to keep others out of the discussion simply because they lack the requisite guild card, er, diploma, Anything that causes historical writing to be judged arbitrarily instead of on its merits is bad for history.
The second problem academic historians seem to have with Beschloss is that he is a celebrity. ABC World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings praises Beschloss as “our resident historian who gives us such a great sense of history.” Tonight show host Jay Leno calls him “the handsomest political historian I’ve ever seen.” Academic historians hear remarks like these and gnash their teeth, partly because they equate media celebrity with superficiality and partly because when their phones ring, it’s seldom the Today show calling.
But if celebrity is no mark of distinction for a historian, surely it is no mark of ineptness either. Beschloss has spent many more hours in dusty archives than in television studios. Indeed, it’s the work he does in the archives that equips him to leaven television news’s admittedly superficial coverage of national events with a certain measure of historical context. Academic historians should take a page from Beschloss’s book. To be sure, not many professors are going to find themselves on NBC Nightly News or even the History Channel no matter how hard they try. But nearly all of them know things that, if distilled for a local op-ed page or radio station, would measurably improve the level of public discourse in their communities.
Academic historians’ third problem with Beschloss is that he writes political history. In his otherwise misguided assault on McCullough, Wilenz correctly pointed out that historical writing has clustered into two camps in recent decades. Among academic historians, social history centered on issues of race, class, and gender has gained primacy over traditional political history. As Columbia University historian Eric Foner wrote in the introduction to his 1990 book The New American History, “The old “presidential synthesis”—which understood the evolution of American society chiefly via presidential elections and administrations—is dead (and not lamented).” But among popular historians like Beschloss and McCullough, political history is fully alive.
Academic historians earn their living as salaried members of college and university faculties, popular historians as self-supporting free-lance writers. Academic historians sell most of their books to conscripts, students who must have them to pass a course. Popular historians sell most of theirs to customers who buy out of genuine interest in the subject.
These disparities rankle the academic historical community. The explanation, of course, lies with the people, who choose to spend their money on presidential biographies and, in Beschloss’s case, accounts of diplomatic history rather than on, say, books about the plight of weavers in early 17th-century Dustbury. But social historians consider themselves to be the people’s champions against the elites, and so their frustration with the Beschlosses and McCulloughs grows.
Is it possible that returning to political history may be a giant step toward the solution for what ails academic historians? Wilentz argues testily that complaints about “the dullness, the narrowness, and the atrocious writing that afflicted the analytical history that was practiced in the universities . . .[have] become cliches.” The great Yale historian C. Vann Woodward offered a more sensible view of the matter. Lamenting the recent turn away from politics among academic historians, Woodward suggested that “people of a democratic tradition . . .have a natural and abiding concern for power and those who have wielded it and to what effect—a concern that historians should never have neglected.” And, he might have added, a concern that Beschloss and McCullough have helped to keep alive.
Unlike Beschloss and McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen E. Ambrose are formally credentialed scholars (Goodwin, Ph. D. in government from Harvard; Ambrose, Ph. D. in history from the University of Wisconsin) who have spent all or part of their careers on university faculties. Unlike them, too, Goodwin and Ambrose have been accused of plagiarism.
Ambrose’s troubles began on Jan. 4, 2002, when Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard published an article showing that several phrases, sentences, and extended passages in Ambrose’s most recent best seller, The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany, had been lifted from Wings of Morning: The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down over Germany in World War II, a 1995 book by University of Pennsylvania historian Thomas Childers. Ambrose had mentioned Childers’s book in footnotes but had failed to place the copied passages in quotation marks. Instead, he usually changed a few words. As one example, compare Childers, page 83, with Ambrose, page 164:
Childers: “Up, up, up, groping through the clouds for what seemed like an eternity. . . . No amount of practice could have prepared them for what they encountered. B-24s, glittering like mica, were popping up out of the clouds all over the sky.”
Ambrose: “Up, up, up he went, until he got above the clouds. No amount of practice could have prepared the pilot and crew for what they encountered—B24s, glittering like mica, were popping up out of the clouds over here, over there, everywhere.”
Two days after Barnes’s article appeared, Ambrose told The New York Times, “I made a mistake for which I am sorry. It will be corrected in future editions of the book.” The mistake Ambrose admitted was not plagiarism—he explicitly denied that charge— but sloppiness. The Wild Blue, it turned out, was his eighth book in five years, and he had farmed out much of the research to his five grown children. “I wish I had put quotation marks in,” Ambrose said. Childers was satisfied with Ambrose’s statement, and Barnes published another article declaring that “Ambrose did the right thing and did it graciously.”
Unfortunately for Ambrose, that wasn’t the end of the story. Within a few days, Forbes.com reporter Mark Lewis uncovered three additional books by Ambrose that included lifted passages: Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors (1975), which took sentences from Jay Monaghan’s Custer: The Life of General George Armstrong Custer; Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973—1990 (1991), which borrowed language from Robert Sam Anson’s Exile: The Unquiet Oblivion of Richard M.Nixon, and Citizen Soldiers (1997), which lifted extracts from Joseph Balkoski’s Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy.
The Times’s David Kirkpatrick then discovered that Ambrose, in writing The Wild Blue, had taken not only the passages from Childers’s Wings of Morning for which he had apologized, but also five passages from two other books: The Army Air Forces in World War II, by Wesley Frank Craven and James Lea Cate, and The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon, by Michael S. Sherry. Forbes.com’s Lewis reported that before he died in 1974, the celebrated World War II historian Cornelius Ryan had written to Ambrose’s publisher accusing Ambrose of “a rather graceless falsification which concerns me and my book, The Last Battle.” Ambrose had copied (and garbled!) two quotations from Ryan for his own 1970 book, The Supreme Commander: The War Years of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. By early February, it seemed, exposing Ambrose had become a participation sport. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch revealed that Lara Marks, a senior at Washington University, had found passages from three works, including Dumas Malone’s celebrated biography of Thomas Jefferson, in Ambrose’s 1996 book Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. In this book, Ambrose had omitted not just quotation marks, but footnotes too.
These additional revelations rendered Ambrose’s initial explanations meaningless and his apology inadequate. “One plagiarism is careless,” David Plotz pointed out in Slate.com. “Two is a pattern. Four, five or more is pathology.” Writing in Time, Roger Rosenblatt added, “If Ambrose wanted to plead accident, he should have taken the passages word for word.” It’s when an author “changes a few words here and there” that a “suspicious person might conclude that you are trying not to get caught.” Ambrose’s thefts of language for his books about Custer, Eisenhower, and Nixon are especially damning because they occurred long before he became famous and could claim being stretched too thin as a mitigating circumstance.
To make matters worse, as the controversy unfolded, Ambrose’s remorse gave way to crusty defiance. “I don’t discuss my documents,” he told the Times. “I discuss the story. It almost gets to the point where, how much is the reader going to take. I’m not writing a Ph. D. dissertation.” He posted a letter on his website stephenambrose.com from George McGovern (a World War II pilot in his pre-political years, and the hero of The Wild Blue) saying that Ambrose “is one of the few great men I have been privileged to know. Like the rest of us, he’s not beyond an occasional mistake.” Ambrose persisted in denying that he was guilty of plagiarism. “I am not out there stealing other people’s writing. If I am writing up a passage and it is a story I want to tell and this story fits and part of it is from other people’s writing, I just type it up that way and put it in a footnote.” Childers was so offended by all this backing and filling that he withdrew his acceptance of Ambrose’s initial apology.
Although no one has accused Doris Kearns Goodwin of being a serial plagiarist, her story followed a similar trajectory to Ambrose’s. On Jan.18, 2002, Bo Crider reported in The Weekly Standard that in writing her 1987 book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga, Goodwin had lifted passages from three earlier works: Hank Searls’s The Lost Prince: Young Joe, the Forgotten Kennedy, a biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr.; Rose Kennedy’s autobiography, Times to Remember; and, most frequently, Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times, by the British biographer Lynne McTaggart. Goodwin told Crider that McTaggart had complained to her soon after The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys was published. “I acknowledged immediately that she was right, that she should have been footnoted more fully,” said Goodwin. “[McTaggart] asked that more footnotes be added and a paragraph crediting her book. This was done in the paperback edition.”
Subsequent reporting by Crider and by The Boston Globe and New York Times revealed that there had been a bit more to the incident than Goodwin admitted. McTaggart said that she’d had “papers ready to be filed in court” showing that “there were dozens and dozens of individual phrases and unusual turns of phrase taken virtually verbatim, or paragraphs where a few words had been changed.” The only thing that kept her from suing was that Goodwin’s publisher, Simon and Schuster, agreed to a monetary settlement, along with the promise of additional credit to McTaggart in new editions of Goodwin’s book. Doubly embarrassing for Goodwin was that the news stories went out of their way to remind readers how indignant Goodwin herself had been in 1993 when she claimed that Joe McGinniss stole passages from The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys for his book, The Last Brother: The Rise and Fall of Teddy Kennedy. “He just uses it flat out, without saying that it came from my work” Goodwin had charged. “You expect that another writer would acknowledge that. It’s inexplicable why it wasn’t done.” McGinniss says (and the record mostly bears him out) that he cited Goodwin’s book repeatedly, “in each case placing quotation marks around the words used, and crediting her as the source.”
What gave the Goodwin story legs was less the deed itself than her attempts to explain it away. Instead of making the reasonable claim that the journalistic statute of limitations had surely run out on a 15-year-old, one-time offense, Goodwin couldn’t stop rationalizing. Initially, McTaggart had been disinclined to talk to American reporters, but after Goodwin made her borrowing seem less extensive than it actually was, McTaggart came out swinging. She revealed the extent of Goodwin’s plagiarism and claimed that the monetary settlement had been “many times more than what is usually the case for this kind of thing.” Goodwin’s mea culpa in a guest column for Time was also, as Slate.com’s Timothy Noah pointed out, “woefully inadequate.” She confessed only to copying “phrases” from McTaggart, sounded a self-pitying note (“Ironically, the more intensive and far-reaching a historian’s research, the greater the difficulty of citation”), and framed the controversy as if it were an interesting case study for a writers’ workshop (“The larger question for those of us who write history is to understand how citation mistakes can happen”).
Like Ambrose, Goodwin explicitly denied that she had committed plagiarism— “absolutely not,” she told the Globe. These denials are especially disingenuous. A Harvard alumna and once a teacher there, Goodwin should consult the university statement on plagiarism, which even undergraduates are required to read and follow. “[I]n one common scenario,” the statement reads, “the student gets careless while taking notes on a source or incorporating notes into a draft, so the source’s words and ideas blur into those of the student . . . If, in your essay on plagiarism, after reading the [previous sentence] you observe that “at a certain point in the writing process the student has neither the time nor the inclination to resist the blurring of his own source’s words into his own” but don’t use quotation marks at least for the words in the middle of the sentence you are plagiarizing even if you do cite [this] booklet” (italics mine, or rather Noah’s, who printed this passage in Slate.com). So much for Goodwin’s claim that because she sometimes attached footnotes when she stole McTaggart’s (and others’) language, she had not committed plagiarism.
Goodwin also followed Ambrose by attempting to frame the issue as merely one of sloppy record keeping. The problem, she wrote in Time, was that she used to copy down passages from the works she consulted in longhand, and sometimes forgot that they were someone else’s words instead of her own. Now she scans text from her sources into a computer and keeps her own notes in a separate file. But as Thomas Mallon, the author of Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism, told Ken Ringle of The Washington Post, “sloppiness is the first excuse claimed by the plagiarist. Sloppiness is just a professional sin. Plagiarism is a moral one.” In his book, Mallon also points out that computers offer less of a solution than a new kind of problem. Plagiarists who used to blame their handwritten notebooks now claim that they confuse computer note files with their own words. The truth is that technology is unrelated to the problem of stealing others’ work and irrelevant to its solution. Authors who care enough about intellectual honesty to place quoted material in quotation marks at the note-taking stage immunize themselves against both sloppiness and plagiarism.
To pair Joseph J. Ellis and Edmund Morris (the “phonies” in the title of this essay) may seem less plausible than to pair McCullough with Beschloss (the “good,” each of them a victim of academic historians’ misplaced disdain for popular political history) or Ambrose with Goodwin (the “bad,” two plagiarists in denial despite being caught red-handed). Ellis is an academic historian who earned his doctorate at Yale and is on the faculty of Mount Holyoke College. Morris is neither an academic historian nor a faculty member. Ellis’s recent offenses (he lied repeatedly to his students about serving in Vietnam and other matters) have involved his behavior, not his published work. Morris’s behavior has been unobjectionable. Instead, it was his 1999 biography, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, that received all the flak.
Yet Ellis and Morris have two important things in common. One is that each has demonstrated an ability to write works of history that attract both critical acclaim and readers by the millions. Ellis’s 1996 book American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson won the National Book Award, and Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation received the Pulitzer Prize after it was published in 2000. Morris’s 1979 biography The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt earned him the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and his new book, Theodore Rex, is a justifiably strong contender for additional prestigious prizes. The other, more important thing that Ellis and Morris have in common is that both, for all their virtues, have committed the cardinal sin of conflating historical fact with autobiographical fiction.
The Ellis affair began with the publication of a long story by journalist Walter V. Robinson in the June 18, 2001, issue of The Boston Globe. Robinson reported that Ellis had told a number of lies about his life, both in classes that he taught at Mount Holyoke and Amherst and in other public settings. In the life that he fabricated, Ellis had scored the winning touchdown in his final high school football game. He’d spent a summer doing civil rights work in Mississippi, provoking local police to pound on his door at night and state police to follow his car. After graduating from William and Mary in 1965, he went straight to Vietnam as a paratrooper and platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division. He also served on the staff of the American commander, Gen. William Westmoreland. Distressed by what he saw in Vietnam, Ellis joined the antiwar movement after coming home. Students were suitably impressed when Ellis shared these memories. Erich Carey, who took Ellis’s course on the literature of Vietnam, was one of several undergraduates who told the Globe that Ellis’s “personal experience gave the course more gravity. He was honest about his experience in the war and the effect it had on him. . . . He had gone, taken the test of manhood, and passed it.”
As Robinson discovered, none of Ellis’s claims were true. His high school had lost the last two football games of the season, and Ellis wasn’t even on the team. His time in Mississippi had been spent recruiting students for an academic program, not working for civil rights. He never served in Vietnam. Instead, after graduating from college in 1965 on an ROTC scholarship, he deferred active duty for four years to attend graduate school at Yale. Degree in hand, he spent his three years in uniform teaching history at West Point, where he told a colleague, “Why should I go be a ground-pounder in Vietnam when I can polish my academic credentials here at West Point?” Ellis was not on Westmoreland’s staff. Nor was he involved in the antiwar movement in any visible way, if at all.
Incredibly, neither Ellis nor Mount Holyoke was initially inclined to treat these revelations as a serious matter. “Even in the best of lives, mistakes are made,” said Ellis, a curiously impersonal statement rendered in the passive voice. Mount Holyoke’s president, Joanne V. Creighton, declared that during his 30 years at the college, Ellis “has earned a reputation for great integrity, honesty and honor. . . . The College is proud to have him on our faculty.”
This posture became untenable almost immediately. The first salvo against Ellis and Mount Holyoke was fired by Emory University law professor David J. Garrow, who wrote a much-quoted op-ed piece for the Globe. In the first sentence (which was by no means the most fiery), Garrow declared, “Ellis’s confession that he has larded his classes about the Vietnam War with fraudulent falsehoods about his own utterly spurious military service there ought to preclude Ellis from ever again taking the podium in a college classroom.” Faculty colleagues at Mount Holyoke lamented that Ellis had “betrayed the principles we all stand for” and students wondered why Ellis was not expected to live up to the college honor code’s requirement to act “honestly . . .in both words and deeds.” Authentic Vietnam veterans flooded Mount Holyoke with complaints. Newspapers around the country ran critical editorials.
It did not take long for both Ellis and Mount Holyoke to change their tune. The college launched an investigation and, in August, suspended Ellis for one year without pay, took away his endowed chair, and barred him from teaching his course about Vietnam and American Culture. Ellis responded with a statement accepting the punishment. He admitted that his behavior was “stupid and wrong” and apologized to students and faculty for “violating the implicit covenant of trust that must exist in the classroom.” He also apologized to Vietnam veterans “who have expressed their understandable anger about my lie.” Not surprisingly, historians around the country scoured Ellis’s books for evidence that he had falsified passages in them, too. They found none. But as one unnamed historian told the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Jefferson of American Sphinx sure seemed a lot like Ellis: “he talks about Jefferson having different personae, and each doesn’t know what the other is doing.”
Not many people rushed to Ellis’s defense last summer, but Edmund Morris was one. “Well, of course he’s woven the fabric of his life partly out of whole cloth and partly out of the shot silk of fantasy,” Morris wrote in an op-ed piece for The New York Times. “Don’t we all? Can any of us gaze into the bathroom mirror and whisper, “I never made anything up?” All human communication, outside of the driest exchanges of statistical and other scientific data, involves a certain amount of story-telling—which is to say, creative license.” Morris was even willing to fill Ellis’s silence about why he had lied to his students. “[A]s a fellow communicator,” he wrote, “I can understand his urgent desire—Only connect!—to convey the divisiveness of the 60’s to a generation rendered comatose by MTV. How better to awaken their interest than to say—as the old have been saying to the young since time immemorial—”I know what it was like, because I was young then, I felt those passions.” And then by degrees (as the technique begins to work) to add incautiously, “I was there . . .over there! I flew, I fought!”“
Morris’s defense, however misguided, was especially generous because Ellis, three years earlier, had strongly criticized Morris’s own excursion into fabulism in Dutch. Writing in The Washington Post’s Sunday Book World section, Ellis had taken to task “Morris’s blending of fact and fiction, real and fabricated dialogue,” especially because Morris had “disguised” the material he had made up for the book and hidden it among the real. “There is . . .surely a moral reckoning to be made when the author collects a $3 million advance for an authorized biography of one of the most significant presidents of the century and then permits his imagination to break free of the tether that ties history and biography to orthodox notions of evidence.”
What had Morris done? In 1985, two-thirds of the way through writing the second of his three planned volumes on the life of Theodore Roosevelt, Morris had been persuaded by Ronald Reagan (and Random House, the giver of the $3 million advance— the largest ever for a nonfiction book at that time) to be his biographer. The offer included a promise that Morris would have access during the remainder of Reagan’s second term to the president, his private diary, his family, and other members of the administration, both for interviews and for a seat in the room when meetings were taking place. In return, Reagan asked for nothing—no right to approve the manuscript, no right even to see it. Needless to say, no other presidential biographer in history has ever been granted access of this kind.
Morris’s deadline for delivering the manuscript to Random House was Jan.1, 1991.But in September 1990, he told a conference of oral historians at the University of Virginia’s White Burkett Miller Center of Public Affairs that he was nowhere near being done. Reagan, said Morris, was “the most mysterious man I have ever confronted.” So frustrated was Morris that he had gone through “a period of a year or so of depression because I felt that with all my research, how come I can’t understand the first thing about him?”
Morris found his way around this obstacle one day in 1992, when he wandered the campus of Reagan’s alma mater, Eureka College. “I literally got the taste of electricity in my mouth,” he told Newsweek (elsewhere he described the moment as “an epiphany”). “I thought of Reagan. If only I could have been there in the fall of 1928, I could describe him as vividly as I could describe him as president.” And so Morris invented a narrator, also named Edmund Morris but born not in 1940 in Kenya like the real Morris but in 1912 in Chicago, one year after Reagan’s birth. He also invented several other people, including two major characters: a newspaper columnist and lifelong friend of the narrator named Paul Rae (“to give a bitchy, gossipy humorous point of view” of Reagan) and a sixties radical son named Gavin Morris who rails against the system during Reagan’s years as governor of California and later disappears into the Weather Underground. “I think my method is an advance in biographical honesty,” said Morris, “because by giving the narrator flesh, as it were, I make the reader more aware of the fact that this narrator’s opinions are not necessarily fair.”
The Dutch that finally emerged in 1999 is an awful book. Not only are readers never told what is factual and what is made up, the apparatus of the book is designed to compound the deception. The footnotes mix nonexistent sources (“P[aul] R[ae] to author, July 13, 1927”) with real ones, and the index includes more than 100 mentions of Morris’s invented family and 66 mentions of Paul Rae. Perversely, given the unique access he was granted, Morris slights the Reagan presidency—that same index, for example, omits any mention of Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. (The Bork nomination “was important to [Reagan],” Morris told an interviewer. “But I had a narrative story to tell, and I just didn’t have the space for that.”) Instead, Morris devoted 28 of the book’s 37 chapters to Reagan’s pre-presidential years, most of them larded with accounts of what Morris’s invented characters were up to. As for the presidential chapters, they are riddled with errors of commission (including a medically bizarre claim that the blood transfused into Reagan after he was shot in 1981, some of it refrigerated, was what diminished his capacities toward the end of his second term) and of omission, such as Morris’s slighting of Reagan’s economic policies and his 1984 reelection campaign.
Morris continues to defend his approach to Dutch, but fortunately Theodore Rex is unpolluted by it. All 864 pages are about Roosevelt’s seven years as president, and all the words, events, and people one finds on these pages are authentic. The skills of writing, research, narrative, and interpretation that made The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt so wonderful are on full display. And although Morris does not pretend to have witnessed anything he describes personally, he brings Roosevelt and his times fully alive.
Joseph Ellis invented an alternate Ellis for his students, a man of physical courage who fought in Vietnam and a man of moral courage who returned home to protest against the war. Edmund Morris invented an alternate Morris for his readers, someone who had a lifelong relationship with Ronald Reagan and keen insights into Reagan’s character. Ellis was punished with suspension from teaching, and Morris was punished with bad reviews. Morris has redeemed himself with Theodore Rex, and one can only trust that Ellis will redeem himself as well, both as an author and as a teacher.
Can anything be learned from these historians’ experiences? Each seems to have been benignly motivated by a desire to bring the past alive, for students in Ellis’s case and for readers in Morris’s. But each of them underestimated his audience, convinced that unless he could provide them with “I-was-there” authenticity, their attention would drift away. The irony is that Ellis and Morris should have known from personal experience that they were wrong. Morris had brought Theodore Roosevelt to life for millions of readers, and Ellis had done the same to the “founding brothers” for thousands of students. Both had succeeded as master tellers of true stories based entirely on factual evidence.
And what of the quest for a Big Lesson to tie Ellis and Morris’s experiences to those of McCullough and Beschloss, Ambrose and Goodwin? Nothing terribly original, but how about dusting off this old axiom: seeing and telling the truth as best one can is the highest scholarly calling. Ambrose and Goodwin betrayed that calling by stealing the work of others and passing it off as their own. Ellis and Morris betrayed it by making things up and portraying those things as true. Academic critics of Beschloss and McCullough betray it whenever they cloak turfmanship, envy, and ideological disdain in the garb of authentic scholarly criticism. In each case, scholars whose accomplishments as tellers of truth are otherwise distinguished have gotten off track. And in each case, deservedly, they have paid the price.