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The Lessons of the History Scandals

In 2002, I stumbled across an act of plagiarism by the historian Stephen E. Ambrose that had gone undiscovered, or at least unmentioned, in the reams of pages then being devoted to his scholarly transgressions. In th e third volume of his Nixon biography, Ambrose wrote,"Two wrongs do not make a right, not even in politics, but they do make a precedent." It was a clever aphorism—uncommonly clever, I now realize, for a man normally given to brown-bag prose. The real author was Richard Nixon's longtime pal and apologist Victor Lasky, who in his 1977 best seller It Didn't Start With Watergate had written,"Granted that two wrongs don't make a right, but in law and politics, two wrongs can make a respectable precedent."

At the time, Ambrose was under fire for numerous similar instances of using other people's words without giving credit. But I saw no point in piling on. Ambrose had been sufficiently exposed—stolen phrases were surfacing in book after book—and he wasn't budging from his defense that as a popular historian, he wasn't bound by scholarly rules. And why should he? In academia, Ambrose had become a joke for his mass production of feel-good war stories before the plagiarism, which only sealed his reputation; outside academia, he remained beloved even after the imbroglio. (I did mention the Lasky-Ambrose incident in my book Nixon's Shadow, but to make a larger point.)

Concurrent with the Ambrose scandal, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin was found to have committed similar (though fewer) acts of plagiarism, albeit unintentionally. (Contrary to popular belief, plagiarism needn't be deliberate to warrant the name.) Also that winter, Emory University began investigating charges that Michael Bellesiles, a historian on its faculty, had invented or grossly distorted data to advance the controversial argument, advanced in his prize-winning Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, that guns weren't prevalent in the antebellum United States. The previous summer, Mount Holyoke historian Joseph Ellis had admitted to lying about his past to students and others, fabricating tales about having served in Vietnam.

Occurring so soon after one another, these flaps struck many commentators as related symptoms of some deeper affliction gripping the historical profession or the academy. Some saw an expression of postmodernism's dangerous relativizing of truth; others discerned a cautionary tale about the perils of writing popular history. Now come two intelligent books about these affairs that implicitly agree that the coincidence of these scandals says something about the state of the profession. Peter Charles Hoffer's Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud—American History From Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin and Ron Robin's Scandals and Scoundrels: Seven Cases That Shook the Academy (which omits the Goodwin case but addresses four other flaps involving nonhistorians, such as the"Sokal Hoax" and the fabrications of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchú) both try to put these events in historical perspective.

Hoffer frames the scandals as the culmination of long-brewing tensions in the historical profession. Reviewing the history of professional history, he recounts how the New Left scholars of the 1960s overthrew the so-called "consensus history" of their forebears, demolishing myths of a harmonious American past and discrediting the history-as-hero-worship on which generations were weaned. But while the New Left historians won out in academia, they never brought most lay history readers around to their viewpoint. Most of the public not only continues to regard history as a discrete, verifiable body of facts—about presidents, wars, great events, and the like—but they like their history to portray America, as one witticism has it, having been born perfect and improving ever since. The gulf between these two conceptions of history remains: The public tends to prefer affirmative tales of political and military triumph, while scholars like skeptical, critical accounts, often focused on the slighted stories of women, African-Americans, and other minorities.

Hoffer is right to highlight this gulf between two conceptions of history. But it's not clear how that gulf produced these recent brouhahas. Sometimes Hoffer seems to fault the post-1960s historians who, he says unpersuasively,"did not have the same motivation as their predecessors for shielding established historical writers ... from criticism." At other times he talks of a" conservative backlash" eager to trash these historians. And on still other occasions he seems to endorse the facile explanation that in their eagerness to win fame, readers, and wealth, these historians fatally cut corners.

The four historians Hoffer discusses not only committed very different offenses; they were"popular" in very different ways. Goodwin won celebrity not by churning out best sellers—she has spent years on each of her books—but through her sunny punditry on PBS and NBC News. Until Ellis snagged a Pulitzer Prize with his best-selling Founding Brothers in 2000, his work, although elegantly written and published by trade presses, hardly resembled pop history. Bellesiles, despite the critical acclaim initially afforded to Arming America, never attained superstardom within the profession or substantial recognition outside it. Only Ambrose might be fairly accused of jettisoning standards to sell books, but the discovery, by Forbes's Mark Lewis, that Ambrose's plagiarism habit began way back in 1964 with his Ph.D. dissertation, published by Louisiana State University Press, suggests his motives were far more complex. Besides, scores of historians, inside and outside the academy, succeed every year in writing history that finds general readers without sacrificing scholarly rigor. Hoffer's popular/scholarly dichotomy is too simplistic.

More unfortunate, Hoffer turns censorious toward the end of his book, praising what he rightly describes as an"auto-da-fe, complete with stake and faggots" perpetrated by opinion-mongers in the media. As a former member of the American Historical Association's Professional Division, Hoffer is understandably peeved that the organization chose to stop its practice of adjudicating charges like those leveled at the Fraudulent Four. But in a book premised on the idea that this quartet of concurrent scandals stemmed from causes deeper than individual character, his solution—rebukes doled out by a professional body—seems naive. It was wise for the AHA to remove itself from the impossible business of resolving these disputes about culpability and instead to try to spread awareness of what good scholarship entails.

In contrast to Hoffer's stern conclusion, Robin's Scandals and Scoundrels is refreshingly free of moralism and alarmism—a must-read for anyone now fuming that Goodwin is back on television or Ellis back on the best-seller list. Though not condoning his subjects' behavior, Robin is more analytical than judgmental, more interested in understanding the meaning of these offenses that in administering another slap to their sorry culprits."I find," he notes,"that the debates on academic impropriety discussed in this book suggest vibrancy rather than trauma." They demonstrated, he argues, the continuous process of establishing norms for the profession.

There's no reason to believe that acts of academic impropriety are any more common today than they used to be. What changed is the adjudication of wrongdoing, a task that the popular media appropriated from academia. By 2002, the popularity of Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin had placed them under the watchful eye of an increasingly scandal-obsessed and intolerant media. These authors'"popularity" is relevant not because writing for the public somehow encourages shoddiness—it doesn't—but because their prominence allowed reporters and pundits to inflate their acts of wrongdoing into national scandals.

Arbiters in the media rushed in to enforce norms of behavior when they believed that academics were becoming lax. But where scholars tend to resolve disputes through careful, drawn-out deliberation, the media incline toward sensationalism and black-and-white verdicts. Moreover, in the last decade many Americans, including journalists, have adopted a primitive zero-tolerance moralism—a punitive code that encourages the trying of minors as adults, three-strikes-you're-out sentencing, the Borking of Cabinet nominees for minor mistakes, the regular-as-clockwork feeding frenzies in presidential campaigns, and the impeachment of a president for lying about sex. And they have relished the schadenfreude of the downfall of a famous historian, politician, or other celebrity.

For all the media hysteria that standards had fallen, it should be noted that Bellesiles was stripped of his job, Ellis suspended for a year, and Goodwin bounced from the PBS NewsHour and the Pulitzer Prize board. These were all perfectly appropriate punishments. Ambrose, as an author who simply didn't care about his scholarly reputation anymore and who could get paid handsomely for cookie-cutter best sellers, seemed distressingly beyond penalty. But, a lifelong smoker who had testified in court on behalf of big tobacco, he died of lung cancer in October 2002.


The point was that Nixon's apologists, in unflaggingly trumpeting the case for Nixon's innocence, contributed to a dynamic that helped Nixon: If they persuaded seemingly neutral arbiters such as Ambrose of their positions, those arbiters would then be invoked by the apologists to claim victory. So, for example, Rabbi Baruch Korff, one of Nixon's more colorful defenders from his Watergate days, wrote his memoir in 1995, citing the line,"Two wrongs do not make a right … but they do make a precedent." Korff was able to credit the aphorism to Nixon's authoritative"biographer Steph en Ambrose," rather than to his old crony Lasky. Korff used Ambrose's standing to back up his own belief that"the justification for defending Nixon is all the stronger given … what we now know other presidents did." Needless to say, Ambrose hadn't convinced Korff of that belief; he had held it all along and was simply using Ambrose to enhance the credibility of his statement.


"Consensus history," a term coined by the late Johns Hopkins historian John Higham, is commonly used by professional historians to refer to a view of American history that was dominant in the 1950s. Unlike the Progressive historians, such as Charles and Mary Beard, who preceded them, or the New Left historians who followed them, consensus historians saw in the American past more unity than conflict. Willing to posit distinctive national traits, they accepted notions of American exceptionalism and an American character. Some consensus historians, such as Daniel Boorstin, celebrated this unity, while others, such as Richard Hofstadter, lamented it. But they generally agreed on the possibility of writing master narratives about a unitary American people, focused on familiar highlights such as the American Revolution and the Civil War.


Hoffer agrees with a distinction I made in Slate in March 2002 that Goodwin's behavior—particularly her response to the revelations—was more honorable than Ambrose's. He also recognizes that Bellesiles's wrongs were of a different order of dishonesty than any of the others', and that Ellis's were the mildest. Yet his framework of"popular" versus"scholarly" history unwisely forces all of them into the same category of unscrupulous historians on the make and in search of stardom, thereby neglecting distinctions he otherwise duly notes.

This piece first ran in Slate and is reprinted with permission of the author. Click here to see a list of his other History Lesson columns in Slate.