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Cheating Words 

Published March 13, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

Whoever handles the press for the International Space Station, the floating science lab jointly sponsored by the U.S., Russia, Canada, Europe and Japan, issued a "Crew Criteria Document" last month that spelled out who would — and would not — be welcome on board when the project starts accepting tourists in the future. All applicants will be subject to a background review, in order "to predict probable future actions that may adversely impact" the program.

Things that can disqualify you from getting into space are a criminal record, "dishonesty," "infamous or notoriously disgraceful conduct," "delinquency," "habitual use of intoxicating beverages to excess, abuse of drugs or other controlled substances, and membership or sponsorship in organizations that adversely affect the public's confidence in the space station."

What about plagiarism? Will that count? Can we assume that two of America's most successful popular historians, Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, won't be allowed to "fly with heroes" because they "borrowed" from other people's work without crediting their sources? Because they "inappropriately copied" sentences and text that didn't belong to them? Because they're thieves, in fact, whose excuses for stealing in space might be as lame as they are on the ground?

Don't be silly. It's all a big misunderstanding.

"The mechanical process of checking things was not as sophisticated as it should have been," Goodwin explains. That is to say, she didn't check her work herself or, if she did, she ran with what she had and "confused verbatim notes" with her own best-selling prose. It could happen to anyone, Goodwin says, since both her manuscript and her research notes were written out by hand. How was she to know the difference?

And, don't forget, while Goodwin was borrowing — that is, inappropriately copying — whole chunks of other people's books for her 1987 best-seller, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, she was also raising "three sons and a husband." Those are her words. At least, they came out of her mouth. Writing history "is a treasured part of my life," she adds, "and no one can take that awayÉ I know absolutely that I have dealt fairly and honestly with all my subjects."

When Goodwin was in St. Paul, Minnesota, last week giving a speech, her topic abruptly changed from "Democracy in Times of Crisis" to "The Writing of History: Problems and Pleasures." This was after her borrowing, her inappropriate copying, was discovered to be "far more extensive" than at first disclosed. It was after Goodwin — who won a Pulit-zer in 1995 for No Ordinary Time, her book about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in World War II — "withdrew from any role" in judging this year's prizes. It was after the Univer-sity of Delaware canceled her scheduled commencement address, and after she took an indefinite leave of absence from her post as "commentator" on PBS's "News Hour With Jim Lehrer."

Calls to Goodwin's home at the height of her crisis revealed only that "she was traveling and could not be reached." Sure enough, she was in St. Paul, swearing "to write history and tell stories as long as I am able." She was talking about the Roosevelts, Lincoln, baseball and Bush, taking only written questions from her audience, but certain that her "reputation for integrity" would survive "long after this current controversy fades into history."

You can tell the lofty circles in which Goodwin does her borrowing and copying just by that last remark. This controversy won't need to wait for "history" to forget it; Goodwin hasn't been hanging around presidents for nothing. She knows exactly how to mortify herself in public, admitting everything — everything known up till now, that is — regretting her "carelessness" and "mistakes," vowing to do better and complaining about the "distraction" this "maelstrom" is putting her through. Such an important lady needs to get back to work. She left St. Paul to a standing ovation, sounding just like one of Dubya's speechwriters.

"When you are confronted with a mistake of the past, admit it, talk about it," Goodwin says. "You cannot change the past. You can rectify the present and make it better for the future."

And that's all there is to it, children — just say the words and off you go. "This is sort of an academic version of Enron," somebody said last week. But it's more than that. What's amazing about these plagiarism flaps is that almost everyone, not just the perpetrators, regards them as a technicality. "I made a mistake for which I am sorry," Ambrose declared before disappearing from sight. "It will be corrected in future editions of the book."

Few have asked what so many "mistakes" might signify about either Ambrose's or Goodwin's body of work, although Goodwin, in No Ordinary Time, was the one who invented the legend that Americans never knew Franklin Roosevelt was crippled by polio and confined to a wheelchair. (Remember the March of Dimes? Remember the slogan, "Roosevelt is on the Dime"?) And if she really can't tell the difference between research notes and her own sentences — well, words fail. What kind of writer is that?

The final victim of all this, of course, is American history, already debased by TV politicians and shouting pundits, fascistic movies, "civility," jargon, decades of scandal in high places and the willful confusion of ideas (plagiarism? Enron?). A population already disinclined to consider the past now has even better reason to give it a miss.

And that's why the words to describe what Goodwin and Ambrose have done aren't "copying," "borrowing," "carelessness" or "mistake." They're cheating, lying and stealing, tout simple.</?

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Peter Kurth


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