As National Review’s Quin Hillyer noted yesterday, aging wunderkind Rick Perlstein is in hot water over 45 instances of apparent plagiarism from Craig Shirley’s 2005 Reagan’s Revolution in his new book The Invisible Bridge. Shirley is a contributor to NR whose book takes a favorable view of Ronald Reagan’s abortive 1976 primary challenge; Perlstein is a leftist who specializes in explaining the self-deluded psychodrama of conservatives — and the unique danger it poses — for liberal readers. You can guess which book has been praised in the Times of New York for being “both enjoyable as kaleidoscopic popular history of the old Mark Sullivan-Frederick Lewis Allen school and telling about our own historical moment.”
In a post at his own site, Hillyer provides some pretty compelling evidence of plagiarism, along with a critique of Perlstein’s weird new citation method and many instances of what can most charitably be called sloppiness. When you turn “dancing elephants were placed in the windows” — a phrase that for normal people would call to mind pictures or other inanimate window displays of the GOP mascot — with “dancers in elephant costume in their windows,” you’re on a journey to the center of the mind, not a quest for historical accuracy.
There’s already a movement to explain away Perlstein’s antics, but I would point out to my friend Dave Weigel that the argument he’s using (Perlstein wasn’t really plagiarizing with his many non-attributed lifts because he did cite Shirley in other instances) is the same defense Doris Kearns Goodwin tried when she was busted plagiarizing multiple passages in her own book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. Goowin went on to ever-greater book sales and a Steven Spielberg movie adaptation, so I don’t expect this controversy will be a career stopper for a writer skilled in flattering the sensibilities of Democrats.
There’s also little chance that Perlstein will take this suggestion from Hillyer: “Perlstein could at least partially make amends, and show himself to be more of a man of honor than he now appears, if he would just step forward and offer an apology and a mea culpa.” Based on my one and only experience with Perlstein, I can say that ain’t gonna happen, because Rick Perlstein is a self-infatuated lunatic.
Back when he was still coasting on his book about Barry Goldwater, I commissioned him to participate in a debate at the Los Angeles Times on, as I recall, the future of the Democrats. His interlocutor was another liberal, and as is usually the case with these sorts of debates, the real loser was the audience. But what sticks in my memory was Perlstein’s dissatisfaction with one of the questions.
These things were done with a week’s notice, but I was unaware that Perlstein had taken offense at one of the setup questions — the entire purpose of which was to get the debaters talking — until he sent in his response, a prolix attack on the L.A. Times for having “no one to the left of center on its opinion staff.” (As if!) Shortly after posting his response word-for-word, I saw that Perlstein had been going around bragging about how the revanchists at the L.A.T. would never have the cojones to publish his devastating putdowns. I sent him a note affirming that neither I (the unnamed author of the offending question) nor anybody else at the paper had at any point considered censoring his response — and also that he might have noted his objections ahead of time. (I certainly didn’t have any problem with giving the debaters a substitute topic.)
That began a long and wearying exchange in which Perlstein roundly congratulated himself for having used The Man’s own means of production to expose The Man’s fascist schemes. I no longer have access to my L.A.T. email, and in any event describing an argument you’ve had with somebody inevitably descends into the dynamic described in the Dubliners story “Two Gallants”: “what he had said to such a person and what such a person had said to him and what he had said to settle the matter.” So I will just say it was one of those exchanges where you can feel yourself getting dumber the longer the conversation goes on.
I have had no contact with Rick Perlstein since that time, and I’m sure we’re both happier for that. (For what it’s worth, fellow leftists seem to find him insufferable as well.) I also never mentioned this matter publicly until now. But it’s interesting to see his weasely lack of professional ethics catching up with him in a way that is a lot more public than an argument with an editor. On the principle that you don’t need to eat a whole egg to know it’s rotten, I’m predicting the plagiarism issue will be the beginning of a cavalcade of questions about Perlstein’s previously unassailable genius. The New York Times calls him a writer whose methods are “sound enough to persuade conservative readers that a writer with liberal sympathies could write a revealing and balanced history of his ideological opposites,” and he’s been riding that reputation for many years now.
“Perlstein is an obsessive researcher who often relies (and fully credits) the writers who did the investigative spade work before him,” Frank Rich gushes. “He doesn’t break news. It’s his insights that are the news, and have been since his first book.”
Beware of a historian who gets praised for not doing history.
And by the way, if you want a kaleidoscopically magical mystery tour of how seventies malaise paved the way for the Reagan Revolution, check out Decade of Nightmares by Philip Jenkins — a writer who really isn’t convinced of his own superiority to his “ideological opposites.” It’s only 352 pages, unlike Perlstein’s 784, and it’s all Jenkins’s own work.