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Honest, Abe? (cont.)

The author answers Andrew Sullivan.

3:40 PM, Jan 13, 2005 • By PHILIP NOBILE
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MY REVIEW of C.A. Tripp's The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln for THE WEEKLY STANDARD has caught the attention of several bloggers--but Andrew Sullivan seems to have been the most irritated. Indeed, his website contains half a dozen angry references to my essay--and that's not counting the drive-by blast he fired off in a column for the New Republic.

Perhaps Sullivan deserves some answer, for he insists THE WEEKLY STANDARD must apologize for my calling Tripp's book a hoax and a fraud--although one would have more confidence in Sullivan's complaints if he gave a stronger sense of having actually read my essay, rather than having merely glanced at THE WEEKLY STANDARD's cover and assumed that anything his most-hated magazine says on a topic touching upon homosexuality must be some gay-hating diatribe.

Sullivan says, for instance, in the classic rhetoric of the "gotcha," that I didn't reveal the conflict of interest involved in reviewing Tripp's book when I myself had previously worked on a competing manuscript about the topic. Since about a third of my 5,500-word essay was on exactly this topic of my previous work--and on Tripp's theft of that work--it's hard to understand what he is talking about. Sullivan doesn't seem quite to grasp that the essay is in part an entry in the series of pieces THE WEEKLY STANDARD has run about plagiarism.

When I tried to warn Larry Kramer that Tripp's book was bad enough to bury the question of Lincoln's sexuality for a generation, he threatened me with endless vituperation. And here comes Andrew Sullivan to carry out Kramer's threat. Does he actually know my position on the Gay Lincoln Theory? Has he actually read my previous work on topics that touch upon homosexuality?

If Sullivan understood his own activism better, he might have spun all this in the opposite direction to say something like: "Though Tripp's book is a dreadful botch, even THE WEEKLY STANDARD used it as an occasion to open its pages to an essayist who suggests the president's weird inner life is insufficiently explained by the theory of an utterly heterosexual Lincoln." But, no, a predisposition to attack the magazine compels him to call the egregious Tripp "a rigorous scholar" and me "a crank."

Sullivan's postings make much of a 2001 posting in which, Sullivan insists, I was "full of spleen against . . . the 'homophobia' of established Lincoln scholars in denying the same-sex loves in Lincoln's life." In fact, I did not criticize Lincoln biographers for "denying" anything, but rather I noted their reluctance to engage "the intellectually tempting homosexual angle" in their studies. That strikes me as a big difference. In a gentle reference to the bare cupboard of gay theory in Lincolniana, I wrote, "Perhaps the best word to describe their reaction is homophobic, that is, fear of a lavender Lincoln."

Second, Sullivan accuses me and THE STANDARD of conflict of interest in the failure to disclose that I had my own Lincoln book in progress in 2001 and supposes that my review was payback for Tripp's beating me to the punch. In fact, as Tripp's former co-author and copying victim, I had inside information on his hoax and fraud. So I did what any normal writer in my position would do, I privately complained to his publisher. And when the publisher knowingly collaborated in Tripp's fabrications and tried unsuccessfully to cover up his plagiarism, I went to the press.

Third, Sullivan sees a contradiction between my old zing at the eyes-wide-shut biographers of Lincoln's heterosexuality and my WEEKLY STANDARD slap at Tripp's cavalier attitude toward the same cadre. Sullivan writes: "So he trashes Tripp for the exact same thing he argued only a few years ago." Of course, I was rebuking biographers in general for not examining Lincoln's gay indicators. But Tripp laughed off specific biographers, David Donald and Michael Burlingame, who read his manuscript and found his arguments foolhardy, just as I did. That's not the same thing.

Fourth, Sullivan quotes my observation in THE WEEKLY STANDARD--"One of the biggest roadblocks to the Gay Lincoln Theory is the fact that neither friends nor enemies ever connected the man to homosexual thoughts, words, or deeds"--and then writes: "Yet in his previous essay, Nobile makes exactly the opposite point. In a letter to [Lincoln scholar Gabor] Borritt, Nobile specifically disowns the idea that the views of Lincoln's contemporaries or even Lincoln himself are salient."

Once again, Sullivan twists context in an anything-goes attempt to knife me. In brushing off the gay theory in his introduction to The Lincoln Enigma, Boritt stated: "Lincoln strongly bonded with men but what may suggest homosexuality in our time most likely did not so much as occur to most people in his time." On this point, I replied : "Of course, it is impossible to know what 'most people' in Lincoln's day might have thought about this matter [i.e., male bonding]. In any case, popular perception is irrelevant to historical truth, whatever it turns out to be." Clearly, my response to Boritt concerned 19th century notions of sex between men, not whether Lincoln's friends or foes noticed his hanky-panky.

Fifth, Sullivan writes: "In THE STANDARD, Nobile argues that Lincoln's early doggerel poem about boy-boy marriage suggests nothing. . . . In an email to Oxford University Press, however, Nobile made a strong case for his own book, . . . [adding] to bolster his case: "'Incidentally, did you know that Lincoln wrote a boy-sex poem when he was 20?'"
Sullivan exaggerates again. I did not say in THE WEEKLY STANDARD that Lincoln's boy-marries-boy poem meant nothing. I merely ridiculed Tripp's original one-to-one correlation between the poem and Lincoln's alleged homosexuality--an argument so bad that even Tripp eventually dropped it.

Finally, Sullivan writes: "Are we really to believe that the vituperation in Nobile's piece is compatible with a simple difference of opinion over a nuance? Given the evidence in front of us, I'd say that the real bad faith in this instance is Nobile's, not Tripp's. THE STANDARD piece is a work of character assassination against a rigorous scholar who cannot defend himself, in the service of a political agenda that is indeed homophobic. Maybe THE STANDARD's editors were unaware of Nobile's rival book and past attacks on the 'het-line' of homophobic Lincoln scholarship. Well, they are aware now. They need to apologize for this lacuna and correct the record."

My hard case against Tripp's flim-flam is based on facts documented in my article, none of which Sullivan bothers to mention or refute. Burlingame's afterword to the book backs up my view of Tripp's less than rigorous scholarship. Further, Free Press made significant changes in Tripp's text after I vetted the galleys, another significant item ignored by Sullivan. The evidence of plagiarism, which forced Free Press to delay publication and rewrite the first chapter, is also missing from his attack on my integrity.

As for apologizing and correcting the record, let Sullivan read my essay and then consult his own finely tuned conscience.

Philip Nobile teaches history at the Cobble Hill School of American Studies in New York. He is the author of Intellectual Skywriting: Literary Politics & the New York Review of Books and editor of Judgment at the Smithsonian.