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August 05, 2014 1:42 PM Perlstein, Shirley, and the Plagiarism Smear

By Ed Kilgore

We are currently being treated to a particularly egregious example of “false equivalency” reporting in the credibility being offered to Craig Shirley’s claim that Rick Perlstein “plagiarized” his own work on Ronald Reagan in inadequately crediting paraphrases of his material in Perlstein’s latest installment of his history of the modern conservative movement. The most prominent example is a piece by the New York Times’ Alexandra Alter, which discussed Shirley’s charges in a he-said he-said manner and concludes the “dispute casts a shadow over the release” of Perlstein’s book.

But don’t take my word for the obnoxiousness of the Times reporting; here’s the Times’ own Paul Krugman:

OK, this is grotesque. Rick Perlstein has a new book, continuing his awesomely informative history of the rise of movement conservatism — and he’s facing completely spurious charges of plagiarism.
How do we know that they’re 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.

In other words, by using the toxic term “plagiarism,” Shirley and his conservative media echo chamber are far exceeding the substance of their claims even if they are all true, which doesn’t seem to be the case at all, given Perlstein’s meticulous attributions and reputation. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to suspect that Shirley is exploiting publicity over recent actual plagiarism cases, to, as Krugman puts it, “slime” Perlstein.

Alter’s piece also goes off into a discussion of Perlstein’s practice of posting his endnotes online rather than weighting down the already-heavy print editions with them. But again, whether you like or dislike this practice, it has zero to do with “plagiarism” or even insufficient attribution. That’s what makes this a transparent smear.

To be clear, I haven’t yet read Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. A copy is reportedly winging its way to me (the official publication date is actually today), and I plan to review it for WaMo. But I’ve read and reviewed the two earlier installments of Perlstein’s series (I reviewed Nixonland here at WaMo in 2008, and am embarrassed at my naivete in concluding that maybe Nixon’s legacy of resentment had run its course!), and have been consistently impressed by his scholarship.

Until this brouhaha broke out, though, I had forgotten that in 2005 I wrote a joint review for Blueprint magazine of books by Perlstein (his Goldwater book) and by—you guessed it—Craig Shirley (his book on Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign, which is presumably the supposed source of Perlstein’s current pseudo-plagiarism). You can read it if you’re interested; suffice it to say I was far more impressed with Perlstein as a writer and historian than with Shirley:

These two books and their authors have many obvious differences. Perlstein, a frequent contributor to The Nation, is very much a man of the left. He is also an extraordinarily skillful writer and historian who views the Goldwater campaign with mordant detachment. Shirley is essentially a political operative for whom the 1976 Reagan campaign was a formative experience. His book is as much hagiography as history. And, while he does a good job of covering the events of the campaign, especially its personalities, his book would have greatly benefited from an editor with less tolerance for his annoyingly frequent ideological tangents.

Nothing that’s happened since then has altered this comparative judgment.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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