FOR HISTORY'S SAKE: THREE PULITZERS THAT SHOULD BE REVOKED

A talk given at the Columbian University graduate student conference, "History of Activism – History as Activism"

by Philip Nobile


April 5, 2002 — The Pulitzer Prize Board has a Doris Kearns Goodwin problem: she is the recipient of the 1995 biography prize for "No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt," a confessed copyist of kleptomaniac scale in her 1987 book, "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys," and a member of the Board.

What to do? First, Chairman John Carroll barred her from this week's annual Board meeting and then triggered an investigation into the bona fides of "No Ordinary Time." Carroll promised to "do whatever was necessary to maintain the highest standard of integrity for the Pulitzer Prize process."

If true, Carroll will have to overhaul the institution's snooty, self–protective culture. In the past, when faced with a famous prize–winning plagiarist, the Board sacrificed integrity and ran for cover, permitting the greatest literary scoundrel of the 20th century to exploit its seal of approval and spread major falsehoods under its halo. "We never went to the ethical question," said former Chairman Russell Baker regarding the Board's preposterous 1977 Special Prize for Alex Haley's "Roots." "The history of the Board is not pure," Baker told me in 1993. "Should we make an effort to amend the past? What's done is done."

"I do not wish to begin re–examinations and amendations [sic] of this sort by placing this matter on the agenda," said Baker's successor, Geneva Overholser, then ombudsman of the Washington Post in 1997.

In such circumstances, I find myself asking, not "What would Jesus do?" but "What would Zola do?" I usually hear back, "Accuse, accuse, accuse." Following Zola's imperative, I charge three historians with attaining their Pulitzers through questionable means and the Board with turning a blind eye, Goodwin excepted, toward their distortions of American history. The three accused are Haley, Goodwin and David McCullough, who gained his prize in 1993 for "Truman."

Bowing to full disclosure, you should know that two of these titans of public history have threatened to sue me — McCullough regarding a fraudulent War Department document that I discovered in "Truman," and Doris Kearns Goodwin regarding my online allegation of copying McCullough in "No Ordinary Time." Instead of rolling out the legal artillery the hapless Haley merely played the race card, requesting that I stop writing about his plagiarism in New York magazine in 1979 lest the Ku Klux Klan use it against him.

McCullough warned me to back off during a mutually taped phone call in 1993: "I made a mistake, sir," he replied icily concerning his inexplicable misread of crucial War Department documents on the number of casualties projected for the invasion of Japan. "Did you ever make one? You know, if you're impugning my integrity in this article, I advise you to go very cautiously. I really mean that. You're free to dislike my work, you're free to attack my work, but if you attack my integrity, if there's libel involved, you may be sure I'll pursue it."

Do I believe that the former president of the Society of American Historians deliberately cooked evidence to exonerate Truman for nuking two defenseless Japanese cities without warning in three days in August 1945? Was McCullough so intellectually dishonest that he intentionally misconstrued the author, date and content of a War Department memo exposing the lie behind Truman's claim of a million American dead in the planned invasion of Japan?

This is not a close call. After all, McCullough prides himself on his rigor. "I don't make anything up, and I don't quote anybody because I think they might have said it," he proclaimed in U.S. News & World Report (June 22, 1992). "If I find something that is controversial or shocking in the way of new information it must be substantiated by at least three sources."

McCullough's brazen bad faith is confirmed in the current paperback edition of "Truman" whose cover is emblazoned with the Pulitzer seal. Despite twenty–one printings since 1993 McCullough has failed to correct his egregious error and therein has wittingly misled millions of readers with a fabrication of enormous import. You can still read on page 400 and 401:

      "But a memorandum of June 4, 1945, written by General
      Thomas Handy of [General George C.] Marshall's staff, in
      listing the advantages of making peace with Japan, said
      America would save no less than 500,000 to 1 million
      lives by avoiding the invasion altogether — which shows
      that figures of such magnitude were then in use at the
      highest levels."

Yet, as McCullough acknowledged long ago, there was no such memo. In fact, General Handy debunked the million–man figure in a document that McCullough has refused to quote.

Is this ongoing disregard for historical truth sufficient to revoke "Truman"'s prize? Only if McCullough's recklessness is applied to his whole A–bomb narrative, which is one long, disingenuous wink at the Rape of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that was ridiculed by C. Vann Woodward, Alan Brinkley, Ronald Steel and Barton Bernstein. "His book is defective, but Pulitzer Prizes have been awarded to books with greater defects," the late Professor Woodward told me. Greater than ignoring a half–century of scholarship destroying Truman's official story? Greater than perfuming an unrepentant war criminal responsible for the terror murders of some 250,000 civilians in an atomic Oradour?

Perhaps Woodward was thinking of "Roots." What Haley did not steal in his slave novel based on a bogus seven–generation family tree stretching back to Africa, he simply made up. And the shady house of Doubleday dared to market the fakery, and still does with all stolen passages intact, as non–fiction!

As a plagiarist, Haley was insatiable. Desperate to complete a book several years beyond deadline and already sold to Hollywood, he devoured Harold Courlander's novel, "The African," and Margaret Walker's novel, "Jubilee," for characters, plots and scene after scene. Both sued. Both proved copyright infringement beyond a reasonable doubt. Courlander walked off with a $650,000 settlement after Haley perjured himself on the stand. Walker, victim of a biased federal judge who thought Haley was above suspicion, lost on summary judgement.

In the history department, Haley was a fabulous flimflammer. Kunta Kinte, his alleged African forebear, was a multi–million dollar grift dreamt up with Gambian government officials hoping to create a tourist trap for gullible African Americans. None of this is disputed. Everything is backed up by an arsenal of smoking guns left behind in Haley's posthumous papers at the University of Tennessee.

What did the all–white, all–male, 1977 Pulitzer Board know about "Roots" and when did they know it? A week before the announcement, the Sunday Times of London and then the New York Times exposed Haley's African fieldwork as a charade and sank his claim to genealogical fame. Nonetheless, the Board shamelessly jumped on the "Roots" bandwagon and stamped a known counterfeit as a classic. Chairman Russell won't endorse a "formal denunciation" of Haley, but he is scarcely na´ve about the fiasco committed by the 1977 Board, which he mocked in a 1988 letter as "a Jonsonian comedy of so many citizens being so thoroughly hoaxed."

Which brings us to La Femme Incroyable, Doris Kearns Goodwin. Once the toast of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Goodwin now does plagiarism shtick with David Letterman. You don't have to be Euripedes to take pity on her bottomless fall from grace. Although I have helped to slick the slope (on historynewsnetwork.org), forcing her fatal admission in the New York Times that the borrowings in "The Kennedys and the Fitzgeralds" were far more extensive than previously revealed or suspected, empathy comes hard for a woman who won't let go of her phony alibi and pose of innocence.

Nobody believes that a former Harvard professor with a staff of paid assistants and all the time in the world was somehow flummoxed by a confusion of handwritten quotes and handwritten paraphrased notes. I told Goodwin that she had no credibility because, à la McCullough, she refused to clean up the paperback of "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys" even after being caught in the act. Instead of putting quote marks around the material stolen from Lynne McTaggart's "Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times," she bought McTaggart's silence, backdated a new preface, and pretended for the next fourteen years that another author's work, actually several authors' work, was her own. So all the crocodile tears about the original "accident" cannot wash away the premeditated plagiarism in the paperback.

Regrettably, Goodwin won't allow me to report her side of the conversation. When she telephoned me in February to beg me to kill my sequel on her alleged copying of McCullough's "Truman" in "No Ordinary Time," she insisted on speaking off the record and wound up, like McCullough again, making a legal threat. (The parallels between the books are posted on mobylives.com.)

Where does this leave Goodwin's Pulitzer Prize? Apparently, she is staking her reputation, such as it is, on "No Ordinary Time," which her lawyer avows is "fully credited and attributed." But even if Goodwin is cleared of copying in "No Ordinary Time," its Prize was obtained under false credentials. Had the Board known in 1995 that she was a practicing plagiarist in the paperback of "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys," no award would have been granted.

Regarding its rogue prize–winners — Alex Haley, David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin — what will the Pulitzer Board do? History awaits the answer.



© copyright 2002 Philip Nobile.

Home

Write to Moby
Letters policy: All letters must be signed. Also, please say where you’re writing from — either an affiliation or hometown.
All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.