Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin Is Accused of Plagiarism Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Harvard University professor and author of several award-winning books, was accused of plagiarizing another author’s work for her best-selling and award-winning history The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (1987). Goodwin created further scandal when it was revealed that in 1987, she had paid off the author whose work she plagiarized.

Summary of Event

Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Harvard University professor, political commentator, and well-regarded historian, is also the author of award-winning books. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt—The Home Front in World War II (1994), a history of the Roosevelt White House during the years of World War II, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995, and The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga (1987), became the basis for the popular television series The Kennedys of Massachusetts. [kw]Goodwin Is Accused of Plagiarism, Historian Doris Kearns (Jan. 18, 2002) [kw]Plagiarism, Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin Is Accused of (Jan. 18, 2002) Goodwin, Doris Kearns Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga, The (Goodwin) McTaggart, Lynne Goodwin, Doris Kearns Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga, The (Goodwin) McTaggart, Lynne [g]United States;Jan. 18, 2002: Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin Is Accused of Plagiarism[03150] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Jan. 18, 2002: Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin Is Accused of Plagiarism[03150] [c]Education;Jan. 18, 2002: Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin Is Accused of Plagiarism[03150] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Jan. 18, 2002: Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin Is Accused of Plagiarism[03150] [c]Plagiarism;Jan. 18, 2002: Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin Is Accused of Plagiarism[03150] [c]Publishing and journalism;Jan. 18, 2002: Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin Is Accused of Plagiarism[03150] Crader, Bo

Doris Kearns Goodwin speaks at a history forum in St. Paul, Minnesota in March, 2002. It was her first public appearance since she was accused of plagiarism.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Goodwin, whose career began as a White House Fellow and later special assistant to President Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;and Doris Kearns Goodwin[Goodwin] Lyndon B. Johnson, also served as a Public Broadcasting Service commentator, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions and the presidential debates. Considering her professional credentials, it came as a shock when Bo Crader of The Weekly Standard reported on January 18, 2002, that Goodwin had plagiarized some of her most highly regarded books. The article, “A Historian and Her Sources,” came just two weeks after the same periodical revealed the plagiarism of American historian Ambrose, Stephen E. Stephen E. Ambrose. The Goodwin scandal also involved earlier efforts by Goodwin to head off potential negative publicity in a hush-money arrangement with the author whom she had plagiarized.

The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, Goodwin’s book that raised questions of plagiarism, had been on the best-seller list of New York Times;and Doris Kearns Goodwin[Goodwin] The New York Times for five months and had won numerous awards after it was published in 1987. It was widely known before the scandal broke that Goodwin relied on an earlier history of the Kennedy family by Lynne McTaggart called Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times (1983) in writing her own book. What remained unnoticed, however, was Goodwin’s use of numerous quotations from McTaggart’s book without attribution. Furthermore, McTaggart, a journalist by profession, had written her book in a style and format that used few footnotes, which made tracing the book’s primary sources difficult and encouraged reliance on the finished work for direct quotations. Nonetheless, Goodwin’s plagiarism raised a question that also came up in the Ambrose case: Did Goodwin, a popular historian, profit from the original research of a predecessor? Goodwin’s case also brought up the issue of failing to fully acknowledge secondary sources.

Making matters worse was Goodwin’s effort to settle her plagiarism without publicity. In 1987, soon after The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys was published, McTaggart noticed the misappropriation of her work. She contacted Goodwin through an attorney, who threatened a lawsuit for copyright infringement. Goodwin responded by negotiating a deal in which her publisher would pay McTaggart a significant sum in exchange for her silence; Goodwin also promised to add the necessary quotation marks, attributions, or both in future editions of the book. Even as she sought to settle with McTaggart, however, Goodwin insisted that the omissions had been unintentional and few in number. She blamed many of the errors on her poor note-taking skills. McTaggart agreed to the arrangement because she did not want to harm Goodwin’s reputation. However, when the 2001 edition of The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys failed to include many of the agreed-upon changes—Goodwin later claimed that to have done so would have broken the flow of the narrative—McTaggart decided to go public with the story. In an interview with The Weekly Standard, published on January 23, she said, “There is a moral issue in general that needs to be examined. The only reason I’m talking now is just to set the record straight. At least let’s have the full story.”

The scandal-breaking Weekly Standard article of January 18 led to great controversy both within the history profession and among American readers. Goodwin’s most highly regarded work, No Ordinary Time, also became the center of scandal when it, too, was found to include plagiarized passages. A number of historians rushed to Goodwin’s defense, most publicly in a letter to the editor in The New York Times New York Times;and Doris Kearns Goodwin[Goodwin] (October 25, 2003) that was signed by prominent historians, including Sean Wilentz, David Halberstam, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a close colleague. The letter denied that she committed plagiarism, a claim that provoked even more scandal. Critics of the letter said it was nothing more than an effort to deny the truth and rewrite the very definition of plagiarism, all for the sake of protecting a famous historian.

The American Historical Association American Historical Association issued a statement rejecting one defense, which claimed that Goodwin’s apparent lack of intent meant that she did not plagiarize. The controversy soon took on a political dimension, as Goodwin’s supporters accused her accusers of a political conspiracy against her, a charge that was fairly plausible given her prominence in liberal political circles. After the story became fully public, however, Goodwin worked to have errors and omissions corrected as they were identified.


The Goodwin scandal had its greatest impact in its exposure of the problem of plagiarism and cheating at the highest levels of historical scholarship, calling into question the integrity of a prominent historian and the validity of her work. Her defenders raised the issue of intention, arguing that intention matters in the definition of plagiarism.

For a time, the damage was done. Goodwin was dropped as a PBS commentator for the 2004 election season, and she also resigned her position with the Pulitzer Prize selection committee. However, the media-savvy Goodwin worked effectively to rehabilitate her image. She hired a media consultant and even made an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman to poke fun at herself and explain the scandal. She eventually left her faculty position at Harvard University, although she remained on its board of overseers.

Commentators have reminded readers about the seriousness of both Goodwin’s plagiarism and her attempts to cover it up; still, she made a comeback with Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005). She also became a popular public speaker and a remains a widely admired historian. Her Web site carefully avoids mention of the scandal, making only the briefest reference to The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. Goodwin, Doris Kearns Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga, The (Goodwin) McTaggart, Lynne

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crader, Bo. “A Historian and Her Sources.” The Weekly Standard, January 28, 2002. The article that broke the Goodwin scandal to the public. First published on the periodical’s Web site on January 18.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodwin, Doris Kearns. The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987. The nine-hundred-page Kennedy family history that became the center of the plagiarism scandal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoffer, Peter Charles. Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud—American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Belleslies, Ellis, and Goodwin. New York: PublicAffairs, 2003. A history of the American history profession, with a focus on modern problems and scandals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McTaggart, Lynne. “Fame Can’t Excuse a Plagiarist.” The New York Times, March 16, 2002. An opinion article, written shortly after the scandal broke, in which McTaggart claims that Goodwin appropriated thousands of her words from Kathleen Kennedy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times. New York: Dial Press, 1983. The biography of U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s sister, from which Doris Kearns Goodwin was accused of stealing material.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weiner, John. Historians in Trouble: Plagiarism, Fraud, and Politics in the Ivory Tower. New York: New Press, 1995. A study of academic scandals in the fields of history and the humanities. Includes the chapter “The Plagiarists: Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose.”

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