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Jewish World Review Jan. 23, 2002 / 10 Shevat 5762

Philip Terzian

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Impersonating history -- I CONFESS that my heart sank when I read, in The Weekly Standard, that passages in Stephen E. Ambrose's latest book, The Wild Blue, had been lifted from a 1995 account of World War II aviators by historian Thomas Childers. This revelation was followed by other examples of plagiarism which, in turn, were explained by Ambrose in the following fashion: The passages in question were footnoted, and in any case, he was working too quickly to include quotation marks. Moreover, he told The New York Times, "I tell stories. I don't discuss my documents. It almost gets to the point where, how much is the reader going to take?"

That is, of course, the wrong question to ask. For it is not a matter of what readers will take -- a lot, as it happens -- but what writers will do, and writers ought not to swipe the words of other writers and pass them off as their own. And that is what Ambrose has done. His admission that he will correct future editions and, henceforth, identify all quotations is welcome, to be sure -- although a little late in the day. And his notion that references and attributions interrupt narrative flow is absurd. As JWR columnist Roger Rosenblatt has written, that is "a defense a shoplifter might use in explaining that he would have paid for his stolen items, but that would have broken his stride on the way out of the store."

I was disheartened by all this for purely personal reasons. Twenty years ago I reviewed the first volume of Ambrose's two-volume life of Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Los Angeles Times, and to my surprise, it elicited a thank-you note from Ambrose, written from London. Authors are not supposed to do that sort of thing, but Ambrose's note poured the flattery on with a shovel. Mine was "the most perceptive review the book has received ... and the last paragraph a superb description of Eisenhower."

It worked. I have read very little of Ambrose's subsequent writing, but I continue to think that the Eisenhower volumes were not only the best accounts of the subject to date (and, I pray, the work of Ambrose alone) but vital to any reappraisal of Ike's career. Along with Fred Greenstein's The Hidden-Hand Presidency, the magisterial Ambrose biography has done as much as anything to rescue Eisenhower from the partisan contempt of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and other disappointed Democrats in the historical profession.

What consequences this will have for Ambrose's reputation I cannot say. Popular historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and Alex Haley have been exposed as plagiarists, as have journalists Molly Ivins, Jonathan Broder, Nina Totenberg and others, but the revelations seem scarcely to have affected them at all. There is momentary embarrassment, at worst, and then all is well again at PBS, or wherever.

Because of his books celebrating the Greatest Generation, Stephen Ambrose has an enormous following among veterans and assorted history buffs, and there is little evidence of disenchantment. Indeed, as is often the case, his fans seem angry at those who have called Ambrose to account: We need our heroes, however flawed they may be, they are saying -- as well as the people who write about our heroes.

Perhaps. But reading between the lines of Ambrose's not-so-contrite remarks, I detect an element of defensiveness. I suspect that he understands the gravity of plagiarism -- how could it be otherwise? -- but is anxious not to jeopardize the industry he has created. Publishers no longer employ editors who might have saved Ambrose from himself, and blockbusters are much to be preferred to prestige. It is no exaggeration to say that, since the extravagant success of D-Day in 1994, Ambrose has been cranking out greatest-generation bestsellers at a prodigous rate.

In my neighborhood bookstore there is, literally, a Stephen Ambrose display case, furnished by Simon and Schuster, where his recent books are stacked conveniently for purchase. For that matter, the fact that he appears to be the historian of choice for Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, who have dramatized some of his work, has done Professor Ambrose's income little harm.

For all of this, no doubt, a price has been paid. Stephen Ambrose settled on a formula, cornered the market, and has been reaping the benefits. But at what cost? There is, in plagiarism, the implicit admission that you cannot improve on someone else's work, and are willing to rob as a form of compensation. It is very well to say, as most plagiarists do, that their research assistants blew it, or the pressure of a deadline induced them to cut corners, or that they meant to put quotation marks around that passage, but forgot to do so. Yet anyone who writes for a living knows that this is nonsense.

Writing is a slow, methodical, personal process, and anybody who chooses to purloin another's words, does so with full knowledge that stealing is wrong.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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