Craig Shirley, a prominent biographer of Ronald Reagan, has accused historian Rick Perlstein of plagiarism in his new book, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan. Shirley has cited 45 instances in which he says Perlstein uses information and passages from his 2004 book, Reagan’s Revolution: The Untold Story of the Campaign That Started It All, without proper attribution.
“We think it is unlikely that Mr. Perlstein even could have completed his book without Mr. Shirley’s book,” Chris Ashby, Shirley’s lawyer, said in a July 25 letter to Simon & Schuster, Perlstein’s publisher.
Ashby cited two types of plagiarism. Perlstein “lifts without attribution entire passages,” in some cases “altering words or re-ordering sentences, but in others not even bothering to do so,” the lawyer wrote. And Perlstein uses “facts and ideas Mr. Shirley first discovered and developed … as if they were widely known or as if he himself had discovered and developed them.”
Simon & Schuster has denied Shirley’s claims of plagiarism. “The books are very different in topic, style, and scope, and when they are considered as a whole, it is clear that any superficial similarities are de minimus,” Elizabeth McNamara, the publisher’s attorney, responded in a letter to Ashby.
Though there are no footnotes in Perlstein’s book, he writes in his “acknowledgments” at the end: “Craig Shirley’s book on Reagan’s 1976 campaign saved me 3.76 months” of labor. He offers no further explanation of Shirley’s role.
And in “A Note on Sources,” Perlstein writes that rather than “burden the end pages” of his book with footnotes, “my publisher and I have decided to put the source notes for my book online, with clickable URLs whenever possible.” He gives his website, rickperlstein.net. Shirley’s work was noted more than 100 times online, a spokesman for the publisher told the New York Post.
This is “an innovative and dramatic means of full disclosure,” McNamara wrote in her letter. The intent is “to make it easier for readers to access the sources directly and engage with them.” But this practice is sure to be controversial, and whether it helps the reader is debatable.
Reviewer Steve Donoghue, writing in Open Letters Monthly, said the process “sure as Hell isn’t easy, convenient, or always intelligible.” Checking out a detail involves a difficult hunt on rickperlstein.net, since notes on the website are numbered “but they’re not numbered back in the printed text,” Donoghue wrote.
“Perlstein’s personal delusions notwithstanding, the only possible aim of an arrangement like this is to discourage the confirming of citations,” he said. In his review, Donoghue also cites examples of footnotes that didn’t confirm the information that had been footnoted.
In his letter to Simon & Schuster, Ashby included nine passages “lifted straight from Reagan’s Revolution with no credit or attribution to Mr. Shirley whatsoever.”
For instance, on page 297 of the Shirley book: “Even its ‘red light’ district was festooned with red, white, and blue bunting, as dancing elephants were placed in the windows of several smut peddlers.” On page 771 of Perlstein’s book: “The city’s anemic red-light district was festooned with red, white, and blue bunting; several of the smut peddlers featured dancers in elephant costume in their windows.”
Ashby also cited what he described as an example of Perlstein’s mention of Shirley in the book’s text, though “Perlstein apparently cannot bring himself to do so by name.”
On page 319 of Shirley’s book: “How many other Clarke Reeds… might be out there, telling him one thing and then doing another?” On page 778 of Perlstein’s: “‘How many other Clarke Reeds might be out there,’ a historian later imagined him thinking, ‘telling him one thing and then doing another?’”
Both Shirley and Perlstein are authors of acclaimed books on modern political history. Shirley has published two books on Reagan (Rendezvous with Destiny was on his election in 1980). And he’s written two more awaiting publication – one on Reagan’s “wilderness years” between 1976 and 1980, the other on his post-presidency.