Monday, April 26, 2010

More blots on the writing of Stephen Ambrose scandal

This is a disappointing story. The prominent historian, Stephen Ambrose, author of many best-selling books, had been exposed for plagiarism back in 2002 in an article by Fred Barnes in the Weekly Standard. Apparently, his habits of using other authors' words without attribution dated back to his Ph.D. thesis.

And now there is this new story which lays out pretty conclusively that Ambrose fabricated stories of interviews and meeting with Dwight Eisenhower that formed the basis for Ambrose's official biography of the former president.
But it appears that Ambrose indulged in some sort of fantasy about the extent of his relationship with Eisenhower. In TV interviews, he claimed to have spent "hundreds and hundreds of hours" with the former president. He even once said he would spend two days a week working with Eisenhower in his office.

However, recently studied records of Eisenhower's meetings contradict the notion that the pair had any lengthy face-to-face contact. "I think five hours [in total] is a generous estimation of the actual time they spent together. I personally would push it back to less than two or three," said Tim Rives, deputy director of the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas.

The discovery came to light almost by accident. The museum had been planning an exhibition exploring the relationship between Ambrose and Eisenhower. Rives found that the records showed that Ambrose and Eisenhower had met only three times, and never alone. He found that on seven occasions when Ambrose had claimed in the footnotes to his book Supreme Commander to have met Eisenhower, his subject was either elsewhere in the country or holding meetings with other people at the time. In one example, Ambrose claimed to have had an interview with Eisenhower in Pennsylvania, when Eisenhower was in Kansas. "The whole story kind of unravelled from there. It was quite a surprise. We were not looking for it, so it sort of happened almost by accident," Rives said.

Given that the lives of former presidents are meticulously detailed by their staff, there is almost no chance Ambrose could have held interviews with Eisenhower that went unrecorded.
And the whole story that Ambrose told of Eisenhower first seeking out the historian who was little known at the time to request that Ambrose be his biographer also appears to have been fabricated.
Ambrose claimed that Eisenhower asked him to be his biographer by ringing him out of the blue in 1964. But Rives found letters from Ambrose to Eisenhower introducing himself and then asking him to agree to Ambrose writing his biography.
I'd always enjoyed Ambrose's work and listening to him when he appeared on television. It is quite disappointing that he appears to have been a serial liar about his work.

2 comments:

LargeBill said...

This stinks. I understand that all biographies should be viewed as potentially biased, but this makes it worse. It is one thing to be a sympathetic biographer (for example "An Honest President" by Jeffers) or to be a hostile witness to history. Usually an astute reader will recognize a bias. However, a propensity to lie is more difficult to discern how it shows up in the record. I'll keep the Ambrose books on my shelf, but no longer trust them.

tfhr said...

I hope this doesn't throw off the impending release of Ambrose's final work: On Plagiarism - The Authorized Autobiography of Joe Biden.