Did A Popular Historian Plagiarize His Big Book About Reagan?

There's an alleged plagiarizer under every journalistic rock lately. The latest target of such accusations is Rick Perlstein, a Nation columnist and the author of a new Big Book About Reagan (this is a genre) called The Invisible Bridge.

The accuser is one Craig Shirley. Shirley is the kind of man whose Wikipedia page lets you know that he has been deemed "one of the most esteemed Ronald Reagan biographers" by the equally esteemed folk of Breitbart dot com. In 2005, Shirley published a book called Reagan's Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All. He says that Perlstein copied bits of his book without attribution. On Shirley's blog, he offers helpful side-by-side charts to illustrate, like so:

Did A Popular Historian Plagiarize His Big Book About Reagan?

Many more such examples are available. And Shirley didn't stop at listing them in a blog post. His lawyer sent the publisher, Simon & Schuster, a long letter detailing his concerns, and demanding—please sit down—$25 million in damages, among other remedies.

Does that seem like an overreaction? Well, this is a Divided America, and the participants in this particular debate obviously come to the table with ideological baggage. One suspects that Shirley, a conservative, would in any event be bothered that his research is being used by Perlstein, a liberal, to reconstruct what is undoubtedly a more critical account of a Republican demigod. Political sympathies are relevant here.

Certainly third parties see it that way. The New York Times's Paul Krugman sums up the views of Perlstein's supporters, writing on his blog this morning that:

How do we know that [the charges are] 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.

And Dave Weigel at Slate pretty much says the same thing, adding that probably what's got the conservative goat is the fact that this is a book about their beloved Gipper.

But there are indeed some "close matches" between these two books. Here's Shirley's first example:

Even its 'red light' district was festooned with red, white, and blue bunting, as dancing elephants were placed in the windows of several smut peddlers.

Versus the Perlstein version:

the city's anemic red-light district was festooned with red, white, and blue bunting; several of the smut peddlers featured dancers in elephant costume in their windows.

There are some... curious similarities. Perlstein repeats the "festooned" and the phrase "smut peddlers," which idiom does sound more native to the President of the Yale Young Republicans circa 1992 than a prominent liberal historian.

The divergence is odd too: Shirley says there are "dancing elephants" (live elephants? Papier-mâché?), while Perlstein sees dancers in elephant costume. Does this reflect deeper reporting of the same facts, or a garbled rewrite?

You'd think Perlstein's notes might clear up what he got from Shirley and what he didn't. Handily, they are available online—in fact are only online because reportedly they would not fit in the book. But the notes for this particular page of The Invisible Bridge don't clearly attribute this to Shirley. There are citations to Shirley before and after, but that particular graph does go without citation.

Yet it's not like Perlstein was hiding his debts elsewhere. In his acknowledgements Perlstein goes ahead and thanks Shirley's whole book:

Did A Popular Historian Plagiarize His Big Book About Reagan?

I'm not sure that amounts to plagiarism, but it could be called sloppiness. A lot of people would call it forgivable sloppiness. Half the non-fiction books out there could probably be fruitfully mined for similar faults.

In fact what I'm reminded of here is not so much the Great Plagiarists of years past but rather the seething resentment that often exists between academic and popular historians. Nearly every major review of Perlstein's work noted that he's a synthesizer, not an original researcher. It's hard not to resent the person who comes along with much prettier gift wrapping and redelivers your work to the world with a bow. But sad news for the Craig Shirleys of the world: Popular as Perlstein's book might be, $25 million is unlikely be in the cards for you, even with a slam-dunk case.

[Image via Getty.]