The Magazine

Honest, Abe?

From the January 17, 2005 issue: A dishonest book claims Lincoln as the first log cabin Republican.

Jan 17, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 17 • By PHILIP NOBILE
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ONLY AFTER READING his two-column obituary in the New York Times on May 22, 2003, did I learn of a completed manuscript. A year later, I heard that Free Press had bought it and set a publication date for November 2004. Last July, I alerted Elisa Rivlin, Simon & Schuster's general counsel, to my suspicions of problems in Tripp's final text. According to Rivlin, it is company policy to ignore complaints about forthcoming books--but she was curious about what I knew, and we made a deal: In exchange for a copy of the galleys, I would vet the book for errors.

Apart from jaw-dropping plagiarism in the first chapter, which kidnapped the text I wrote for the aborted peer review, I saw that Tripp was up to the same tricks that had forced me to withdraw from the project: consistently bending the evidence in the lavender direction. The con was so outrageous that I urged killing the book. "If you correct the errors, remove the copied material, restore what Tripp covered up, and make the proper attributions, there is not much left of Tripp's argument," I emailed Free Press counsel Jennifer Weidman.

Emphasizing the risk of a Simon & Schuster-sponsored history fraud (it was also the house that published the plagiarized works of Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose), I turned over my correspondence with Tripp.

The file included a four-page letter from Lincoln biographer and Simon & Schuster author David Donald, disparaging a 1996 draft of Tripp's argument. "Throughout you seem to be neglecting the fundamental rule, the historian has to rely on facts," observed Donald. "I don't mean to discourage you from doing further work--but I do think it ought to be more systematic and more empirical."

Tripp was cavalier about the negative reaction from historians--ascribing their rejection of the theory to their unwillingness to admit homosexuality in their hero. He said that Donald told him that he would not believe Lincoln was gay even if Lincoln said so. Tripp was even convinced that another doubtful biographer was timid because he was a nervous closet case--until the man introduced him to his fiancée.

MY INTERVENTION seems to have caused second thoughts at Free Press. The publication date was shifted from November into the new year, sacrificing the Christmas trade. Rivlin appeared to value my criticism. After the first round of memos, she asked for more.

Yet despite repeated requests, she blocked my meeting with Tripp's Free Press editor, Bruce Nichols. Company spokesman Adam Rothberg told the New York Times last month that "slight changes" were made after my protest and that "we are satisfied that we are publishing a book that reflects Mr. Tripp's ideas and is supported by his research and belief."

BELIEF, ABSOLUTELY. Supported by Tripp's research, not quite. Free Press's corrections have managed to put the book's ideas in even a worse light than Tripp had left them. As he once wrote me after I toned down his purple prose on Lincoln's puberty, "with 'friendly' editing like this, we don't need any enemies."

Look, for instance, at the discussion of Lincoln's adolescence. Tripp felt his date-of-puberty argument was the most-important "smoking gun" in the whole gay Lincoln arsenal. Not only did it lend a quasi-scientific luster to a largely speculative quest, it was his sole original contribution to the discussion of Lincoln's sexuality. According to Kinsey, extremely precocious puberty in males is associated with a higher lifelong sex drive, social extrovertism, and, in almost half the sample, at least some incidence of homosexuality.

Consequently, Tripp sought to establish the earliest possible date for Lincoln's transition into adolescence and twisted the facts to do so. Initially, his source was William Herndon's 1888 biography, Herndon's Life of Lincoln. "In his eleventh year he began that marvelous and rapid growth in stature for which he was so widely noted in the Pigeon Creek settlement," wrote Herndon, relying on Lincoln's older grammar school classmate, David Turnham. Since Kinsey's average age for puberty was 13.7 years, Tripp said that Lincoln's eleventh year puberty increased the probability for some homosexual experience.

So far, so good, if one grants that boys of Lincoln's day had the same average as Kinsey's twentieth-century sample, a wrinkle blithely ignored by Tripp. But in 1998, Tripp moved Lincoln's puberty date from eleven to nine after reading a full transcript of Herndon's scribbled Turnham interview, published in the 1998 Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements About Abraham Lincoln: "immediately on landing in Ind I became acquainted with Mr Lincoln. My father and his were acquainted in Ky--Abe was then about ten years of age--I being 16 ys of age--Abe was a long tall dangling award drowl looking boy--went hunting and fishing together."