According to Craig Shirley, Your Choices are Plagiarism or Amnesia.

So, a friend of mine just got accused very publicly of plagiarism by author Craig Shirley.

The charge is completely bogus, and note that I have carefully arranged the above phrasing so as not to cause the Internet’s search engines to add any weight to the charge merely from my mentioning it here. You can’t trust those bots to use good judgement.

I’ve read Rick Perlstein’s new book The Invisible Bridge cover to cover, and now have seen the specific accusations Shirley makes. Perlstein shouldn’t even have to defend himself or his fine book against such claptrap, but unfortunately, because of a shallowly-reported New York Times piece about the accusation yesterday — the usual problem of just reporting what each side in a dispute says, instead of digging into the sources and presenting enough factual information for an interested reader to discern what’s actually going on — it’s necessary for the rest of us to do for free what the NYT reporter failed to do for pay.

So first, kudos to Paul Krugman for noticing and writing a short piece about it today. But a full presentation of the facts overwhelming favors Rick Perlstein’s case here, so I’d like to offer the primary sources — the claims Craig Shirley is actually making:

  1. First letter from Craig Shirley’s lawyer (07/25)

  2. Second letter from Craig Shirley’s lawyer (07/28)

  3. Response from Rick Perlstein’s lawyer (07/30)
    …and if you read only one of these letters, read this one; their response is beautiful.

I know you might not have time to read them — though you should if you can: Shirley’s side is fascinating as an exercise in intellectually bankrupt brazenness, and Perlstein’s lawyers are a joy to watch in action as they take it apart claim by claim — so I’ll give just the flavor of it here:

From Craig Shirley’s Reagan’s Revolution (2004) From Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge (2014)

Page 326: “In 1982, White House Chief of Staff Jim Baker was in the Oval Office with President Reagan. While reminiscing about the 1976 campaign, Baker asked Reagan if he would have accepted the offer, if it had come from Ford. Seconds passed, and Reagan said, ‘Yes, Jim, I probably would have.’

Page 794: “However, when Jim Baker was his White House chief of staff in 1982, Reagan told him he would have taken the running mate spot if Ford had offered it.”

Yes, I’m not making this up — in fact, that’s the very first example of so-called plagiarism Shirley offers.

Now, Shirley and Perlstein are both writing about historical events, Shirley in a 2004 book, Perlstein in a 2014 book. So apparently, if Perlstein reports the same historical event that Shirley reports, Perlstein must be guilty of plagiarism, because… Craig Shirley has some kind of monopoly on history itself?

The rest of the accusations in Shirley’s letters are similar to the above. Essentially, he accuses a fellow historian of, well, being a historian.

Plagiarism or amnesia: those are your choices, in Craig Shirley’s universe.

It’s difficult to know what to do when someone behaves like this. It’s like Shirley is standing in front of you, pointing his finger at a carrot

a carrot

…and he says “See? There’s the smoking gun! Right there!”

And you look at it and you say, “Uh, I’m sorry, but that’s just a carrot…” It doesn’t do you any good. You can’t argue with people who insist that a carrot is a gun. All you can do is try to ensure that everyone else understands what’s happening.

It’s true, and perfectly normal, that Shirley’s book was the source — or sometimes one of several sources — for some of the historical facts used in The Invisible Bridge. But Perlstein never tried to hide this: he thanks Shirley in the acknowledgements, and cites Shirley repeatedly — over 100 times — in the source notes, the way any good scholar should.

One of the amusing side threads in Shirley’s letters is his umbrage over one of Perlstein’s best decisions: the decision to put the source notes for The Invisible Bridge online, instead of printing them in the book itself. The advantages of doing it this way are obvious, and it’s just a matter of time before it’s the new normal: 99% of readers don’t ever look at the source notes (so why waste paper?), and for the scholars and other interested parties who do want to look at them, they’re actually easier to use in electronic form (hint: you can do automated searches on them that way — that’s how I was able to quickly count the citations).

Perlstein never covered up that he was doing this. Quite the opposite: he states it clearly in the book, explains why he’s doing it, and the print edition gives the Web address for those source notes. Here they are:

Somehow, Shirley’s laywers try to twist this innovative and entirely practical step into something sinister — getting their facts wrong in the process. From Shirley’s first letter:

After realizing the book contained no bibliography, footnotes, end notes or other citations, Mr. Shirley initiated an exchange of e-mail messages in which Mr. Perlstein confessed to making a “principled decision” to omit them because he thought they were “useless except for show.” (Of course, as Mr. Perlstein’s May 2014 phone call to Mr. Shirley betrays, he found the notes in Reagan’s Revolution to be quite useful.)

This is such a bald mischaracterization of what Perlstein said and meant as to be a misquotation. Perlstein did not “confess” a decision to “omit” the notes; rather, he explained that he had placed them online, which saves space and makes them more easily useable by those most likely to use them. He also never said that source notes are “useless except for show”; what he said was that printing them in the treeware book is useless except for show — and he’s right.

And from Shirley’s second letter:

Also, it is worth noting that while Mr. Shirley is referenced in the online source notes for these passages, the address at which the notes are posted appears nowhere in The Invisible Bridge or on its dust jacket — a fact which further evidences Mr. Perlstein’s intent to steal and conceal.

Wow. “Intent to steal and conceal”. Yes. That must be why Perlstein put the source notes online, where they could be indexed by any Internet search engine and more easily found by scholars.

What can one say about a historian like Shirley, who would wilfully misunderstand a bone fide and clear explanation from a colleague about perfectly legitimate sourcing techniques? At the very least, that one should worry about Shirley’s ability to faithfully report, in his own work, what he has learned from his own sources.

That worry would be justified, it turns out.

Look carefully at footnote number 2 in the response from Perlstein’s lawyer, which says:

Your two examples of Mr. Perlstein’s supposed failure to credit Mr. Shirley fail. Mr. Perlstein’s source for Nancy Reagan’s quote on page 631 of his work (and the reason his quote is different from Mr. Shirley’s) is a book published in 1977, PR as in President, by Victor Gold (p. 97).

Leave aside the obvious fact that it’s not plagiarism when you use the same Nancy Reagan quote that someone else uses — she said it; that’s just a historical fact — and leave aside even the fact that Perlstein had two sources for that quote, only one of which was Craig Shirley’s book. There is something more interesting going on here:

That book by Victor Gold, PR As in President, which came out twenty-seven years before Craig Shirley’s book, is one that Craig Shirley acknowledges having read too. (He told Rick Perlstein so on the phone.) Perlstein describes Gold’s book as an “excellent book, full of behind-the-scenes nuggets”, and one such nugget is that Ronald Reagan’s famous and supposedly spontaneous speech at the 1976 Republican convention where Reagan lost the nomination to Gerald Ford — a scene that Perlstein concludes his book with — was not in fact spontaneous at all, but had been carefully negotiated with the Ford campaign. Shirley claimed to have read and liked Gold’s book — but in Shirley’s own Reagan’s Revolution (2004), he still, with a bit of perfunctory hedging about how “sources differ”, portrays the speech as having been extemporaneous. You don’t have to know much about political campaigns, or for that matter about Ronald Reagan, to know that is highly unlikely on its face. (Update: There’s more detail about this episode in David Weigel’s excellent piece today about the false plagiarism charges.)

Rick Perlstein would never be so shoddy as to make a mistake like that. I’ve not only read Perlstein’s book, I’ve gotten to watch him working on it on many occasions. I’ve seen his own library, and sat next to him at scholarly libraries as he pulled out resource after resource and pored over them; I’ve seen how obsessively he checks sources, not merely scouring the Internet, but also flying out to various physical libraries to get access to material that isn’t yet online — not just print, but audio and video too. Rick Perlstein would never let an important detail like that slip by without bothering to integrate it — and properly attribute it.

And yet it is Craig Shirley sliming Rick Perlstein with baseless charges of plagiarism. Shirley’s lawyers should have had the good sense and the professional standards to tell their client that the accusations make no logical sense, but instead they wrote letters that misstate both the facts and the law, to their extreme discredit. (Perlstein’s lawyers, on the other hand, should get some kind of prize for the clarity and thoroughness of their response — how they managed to maintain a straight face while writing it, I don’t know; perhaps they didn’t.)

In the end, this will blow over, and Rick’s book will be the bestseller and conversation-changer it deserves to be. But the kind of “he said, she said” reporting that leads unsuspecting people to believe there’s some kind of real controversy needs to be vigorously countered. There’s no plagiarism here; there is just deep research, great narrative and analytical writing, and thorough attribution of sources. Craig Shirley should be grateful to be cited in a book as good as Rick’s, and no objective person who looks at the claims — just at the letters from Shirley’s side, even without reading the responses — would come away thinking there was a problem.

So, please:

  1. Buy Rick Perlstein’s The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, read it, and tell all your friends about it. It’s the best analysis of the why Ronald Reagan became President, and what that signifies about the U.S., that I have ever read (and the book includes a deeply perceptive capsule biography of Reagan, along the way).

  2. If you hear someone say things like “Oh, wasn’t there some scandal about that book? Something about plagiarism?” let them know firmly that there is no scandal, no plagiarism, and that they have been successfully conned by an unscrupulous (perhaps jealous) author and his allies.

Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute. If you want to help spread the word, you can retweet this (or redent this).

Enjoy the book!

The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan

One comment

  1. Karl thanks for this very detailed set of insights into disingenuous public behavior by Craig Shirley toward Rick Perlstein. I think it’s a great example of how the reality of a situation often differs starkly from the appearance and why we should all be extremely skeptical of attacks like Craig’s. I admit that before reading your post, I was totally unaware of this issue and Rick’s book, but now his book is on my list of things to read.

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