Gifted Biographer or a Successful Grifter-Plagiarist?
Doris Kearns, as a Harvard PhD candidate at age 24, was selected in 1967 for a White House fellowship despite having written an article for The New Republic titled “How to Remove L.B.J. in 1968”. She was undoubtedly not the only one surprised by that.
At that point, she did not understand that President Johnson had personally chosen her as a challenge, indubitably related to his self-perceptions of manliness and charm: i.e., his innate ability to beguile and eventually seduce any woman he chose. This despite his well-known love-hate jealousy with “Harvards” generally, many of whom had populated the White House under JFK, and had nicknamed him “Uncle Rufus,” or “Cornpone”. And thirty years later, in a Dartmouth commencement address, she admitted as much: According to her, he had approved her appointment with this remark: “Oh, bring her down here for a year and if I can’t win her over, no one can.”
When she went to the White House that summer with the other new “fellows” to meet Johnson at a party, the six-foot-four President asked the petite five-foot-two she-fellow to dance; her description of that event was reported in a lengthy 1975 article by Sally Quinn in The Washington Post:
“He walked up to me and began to talk, standing so close that his stomach almost touched my chest. Almost immediately, as we talked, I became uneasy, a sudden anxiety, produced, as I was later to realize, by his physical closeness. There was no hint of any sexual intention, but it was a violation nonetheless.
“’Do your men ever dance at Harvard?’ he began. ‘Of course they do,’ I responded, wondering what was coming next. ‘Bull!’ he pronounced. ‘I know what goes on up there. They sit in their chairs and read books. And I bet they can’t dance like I’m dancing now.’
“With that he tightened his grip on my back, slid his firm hand down to my waist and moved me in wide circles around the floor exuberantly.”
In 1971 her association with Johnson was described in the then-popular magazine Parade, including a reference to how he had compared her to his mother, which greatly upset Johnson. Somehow, according to the Sally Quinn article, “Kearns feels that the Parade article was the ‘beginning of the implications of a sexual relationship with Johnson’ that has never really been put to rest. “Lady Bird,’ she says, ‘was quite upset by that’.” The excerpt of Quinn’s article below describes the intimacy between the aspiring author and her subject in greater detail, though it leaves more unsaid than will ever be known:
It is interesting, in retrospect, that Johnson seemed to go out of his way to entice this particular “Fellow” to commit a very large part of her young life to be of service to him. She was the embodiment of the “Eastern Intellectual”—a “Harvard” in fact—that he had always detested and belittled. Yet he chose her to ghost-write his memoirs and, at least in his mind, he became so enamored of her that he even eventually proposed marriage to her.
That point became very controversial to authors Richard Harwood and Haynes Johnson concurrently with their preparing to write their book Lyndon, that would be published in 1973. That book alluded to the closeness of the ghost writer/historian of Johnson’s memoirs to her subject, “Her own feelings, she has said, were always complex. She had great affection for Lyndon, he fascinated her, he impressed her . . . In her view her own feelings never progressed to romantic love.” 
Satisfied that he had found someone who would faithfully describe his “rags to riches” past in the most positive and innocent way possible, he picked Kearns to be the ghost-writer of his autobiography, The Vantage Point. Having put him off for some time, on one of his last days in the Oval Office, she “could not turn him down. ‘I need help . . . whatever you can give.’” She didn’t say as much, but the suggestion that he had tears in his eyes as he begged her to “help” complete his work, was certainly there, likely of the type some refer to as the “crocodile” type.
Kearns soon discovered what Johnson’s “memoir” was not meant to be: a candid and honest retrospective of his life. For example, Johnson didn’t want her to include references to the anecdotes and off-color stories that he spun. He complained to her about using anything that he had ever said that was critical of anyone still in office, or any suggestion that he had ever used vulgar language—indeed, anything that accurately reflected the sum and substance of what actually went on, or his actual style—and she summed it up well when she quoted him:: “‘God damn it, I can’t say this’—pointing to a barbed comment on Wilbur Mills—’get it out right now, why he may be the Speaker of the House someday. And for Christ’s sake get that vulgar language of mine out of there. What do you think this is, the tale of an uneducated cowboy? It’s a presidential memoir, damn it, and I’ve got to come out looking like a statesman, not some backwoods politician.’”
This illustrates the point better than anyone else could possibly describe: He knew it really was a story about a backwoods politician who – through his extreme methods of manipulation – made it to the “big tent” and that automatically conferred “statesman” status to its occupant. Naturally he wanted “his book” to be only about the latter, none of the scrappy – and worse – stuff that got him into that office. It should have been no surprise that the resulting product was not well received by most critics, and it never sold well except perhaps to libraries. The New York Times book review was particularly scathing:
Judging from its tepid language and its pop-magazine organization, the author was never even a tint more colorful than Calvin Coolidge . . . so sappy is the language with which he describes its [his domestic program] forging—so puffed up with bromides, platitudes and phrases such as ‘it had always grieved me greatly’ . . . that its weight boils down to nothing.
Kearns acknowledged their sometimes-tumultuous, often-intimate relationship during the course of her working as his primary “ghost-writer”. Much of the tension was the result of her attempts to extract truth from him, which is understandable, given his chronic and compulsive lying ability, which by then would have hardened to an impenetrable state since he had long ago replaced truths with lies that he came to believe were real. Yet even that could not justify the numerous errors of fact that should have never been allowed to be published in The Vantage Point in 1971. One striking example of that, related to the 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, can be found in this excerpt from my book Remember the Liberty!:
It was known immediately that at least 25 men were killed and over 100 men injured, but these statistics were withheld from the public. They were told the numbers were 4 dead and 53 wounded. Within a few days, it had been established that 34 men were killed and 171 injured (later revised to 174 injured).
Yet President Johnson announced that only “10 men” were killed and 100 injured, and, amazingly, still used those figures in his memoirs, Vantage Point, published four years later.
The demonstrable looseness with which numerous such factual inaccuracies appeared in Johnson’s memoirs – of which her contributions can be traced – set a pattern in her writing style that would come back to haunt her thirty years later, as we will examine shortly.
Miss Kearns Become Mrs. Richard Goodwin
Doris Kearns met Richard Goodwin in the summer of 1972, six months before Johnson died – January 21, 1973, nearly to the day that he would have ended a second term in the White House, had he been reelected. During the ensuing two-year span, before they married in 1974, they ignited a literary fire-storm that was widely reported and would be the first of a series of highly controversial blights on her career.
One of their first writing projects together – a “psychobiography” of LBJ – that would become a literary scandal, was an attempt to turn Ms. Kearns-Goodwin’s doctoral dissertation into a book that they would write together, with Richard’s additional material from his White House years added to Doris’. After a failed attempt to get the president of Basic Books, Erwin A. Glikes, to reform the contract accordingly, along with a larger advance, Mr. Goodwin shopped the idea around to larger publishers and had managed to hook a deal with Simon & Shuster for an advance of $150,000. It meant that Doris would need to break the previous contract, for which she had already received an advance of $24,000 from Mr. Glikes. Needless to say, Mr. Glikes took an intense dislike of Goodwin, who reciprocated that sentiment when he said:
“. . .they wanted to make it a sex and money scandal [with LBJ in the middle of it] – the press created the scandal, otherwise it would be just another breach of contract case no matter what Erwin Glikes says. He’s just a publisher. He has his three-martini luncheons and sits and waits for authors to come along. There’s no record of his putting sentences together. Glikes’ problem is that he’s an obnoxious, wormy little fellow of no consequence . . . I’ll tell you what kind of guy Glikes is, he’s the kind of guy that if he comes up to you at a cocktail party you excuse yourself to get a drink.”
Eventually, the tension between all the parties involved at that point caused Richard Goodwin to cut his name and all of his material from the revised manuscript completely and return his share of the advances, “because the press was doing so much damage to Doris . . . “ 
In the meantime, her attempt to obtain a tenured professorship at Harvard had become jeopardized by the controversy over the book as well as her status as a member of the 19-person board that awards Pulitzer Prizes. Losing both of those fights, she accepted a non-tenured associate professor position at Harvard and was forced to resign from the Pulitzer board. 
With Considerable Fanfare, Her LBJ Book Was Published
In 1976, she finally – and supposedly without Richard Goodwin’s involvement – wrote Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, that described him as being, at least superficially, a great and magnanimous leader whose driving ambition was not for himself but for the common folk: “that every American should have enough nourishing food, warm clothing, decent shelter, and a chance to educate his children; and later, as the Presidency extended his reach, he wanted to restore nature, rebuild cities, even build a Great Society. He wanted to out-Roosevelt Roosevelt.” (Emphasis added by author).
The irony of that emphasized phrase is that it probably came from Richard Goodwin, who had used it since he first experienced an epiphany about “the intensity of Lyndon Johnson’s intent” in the days after Johnson became President in 1963, which he later described in his own book, Remembering America.
The critics quickly saw through the transparent attempt to anoint Johnson with adulation even as the nation tried to recover from the damages he had wrought. Pulitzer Prize winning author, historian and journalist Gary Wills, in a 1976 review of Kearns’ book, noted that “Vast areas of the Johnson psyche are missing from this book—the shrewd and bluffing masculine side, obscene and voracious and game playing—because he did not think that it would ‘play’ in Cambridge.” In his article in the New York Review of Books, Wills concluded with this astute observation: “Johnson gave of himself selectively, always expecting more in return than anything he had surrendered.”
A 1991 book by Paul R. Henggeler, In His Steps: Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedy Mystique, asserted that Johnson had used Kearns to get a head start into rewriting real history with a servile account of his reinvented tale, complete with all the hundreds of lies previously documented. Henggeler showed that Johnson even implicitly admitted as much when he begged and pleaded with her to go to Texas with him to write his memoirs: “Those memoirs are the last chance I’ve got with the history books, and I’ve got to do it right.”
2002: A Year of Infamy for Two “Celebrity Historians”
Thirty years later, in a 2002 article in the Los Angeles Times, staff writer Peter H. King described how a controversy over the works of two famed celebrity historians – Steven E. Ambrose and Doris Kearns-Goodwin – had been contaminated by plagiarism. Ambrose’s offense first surfaced with charges made January 1, 2001 in The Sacramento Bee that “listed more than sixty instances identified as ‘significant errors, misstatements, and made-up quotes’ in Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863–1869. That was soon followed by the publication that same year of his The Wild Blue and it was quickly determined that he had also copied numerous passages, without attribution, from six other previous books. Though Ambrose had received many awards over the years, mostly related to his work on military-related stories, he had not received the one considered a “pinnacle” by aspiring writers.
That was the difference between these two formerly esteemed historians: Doris Kearns Goodwin had received the Pulitzer Prize for No Ordinary Time, a history of Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II. According to the Peter King article, Ms. Goodwin’s troubles with plagiarism charges began with her The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. Soon after that story hit the news in 2002 it was discovered that the person she had “borrowed words” from – Lynne McTaggart, a London-based writer who had written a biography of Kathleen Kennedy – had already obtained a secret financial settlement from Ms. Goodwin, which was tantamount to acknowledgment of her guilt.
Yet despite that irrefutable fact, Goodwin, according to reporter King, denied her guilt:
In her own mind, Goodwin was not–is not–a plagiarist. She takes pains to avoid the very word, referring to the McTaggart business as “that mistake” or “this thing I have done” or simply “it.” In an interview, the only time she uttered the word “plagiarism” was to deny committing it in the Kennedy book: “You know, at the time the book was written, it absolutely required intent to deceive in order to be plagiarism. And no one is claiming that. No one is claiming that there was any intent.”
Her defense has been that she was guilty only of a “mechanical breakdown,” a misdemeanor of sloppy footnoting and subpar paraphrasing in what was her first attempt at a major history. She also maintains that after the Kennedy book, her methodology was cleaned up, so that when it came to “No Ordinary Time,” her Pulitzer-winning history of Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt in wartime, “things got checked. We knew. We’d been through this.”
But that was to be proven untrue as well: According to the Peter King article, the L.A. Times assigned a researcher to the task of checking “No Ordinary Time” and found “nearly three dozen instances where phrases and sentences in Goodwin’s book resembled the words of other authors.”
The L.A. Times article included, among several others, this example of Goodwin’s plagiarism:
… so Eleanor composed herself, returned to the living room, and said in her most disarming manner: “It is kind of Mr. Aldrich to offer to be chairman, but is it not better from the point of view of geography to have someone from the Middle West?” At that, she turned to Marshall Field; she knew it was a bothersome responsibility, she said, but could he accept the chairmanship? Somewhat startled, the Chicago philanthropist and stalwart New Dealer did.From Page 635 of Joseph Lash’s “Eleanor and Franklin,” published in 1971
… Eleanor quickly composed herself, walked back into the living room, and said in her most disarming manner, “It was kind of Mr. Aldrich to offer to be chairman, but is it not better from the point of view of geography to have someone from the Middle West?” At that, she turned immediately to Chicago philanthropist and New Deal loyalist Marshall Field; she knew it would be a bother for him, but could he accept? Though caught somewhat off guard, Field gave his assent …”From Page 99 of Goodwin’s book, published in 1994
Lessons Doris Learned – From Her First Mentor?
In the interest of brevity, we will not examine every single additional detail of how this famous celebrity-historian (who had a large role in creating that very special genre) has repeatedly used the avarice and guile she apparently learned from her master-mentor then denied an “intent” to do what she did, evidently so honestly confused by her own actions that she couldn’t stop, and continued grifting (a.k.a. “expropriating”, “borrowing”, or simply “stealing”) the works of others while vigorously rejecting the charge because it was “unintentional.”
As anyone who ever took a college-level class in Journalism 101 can attest (at least in past decades – it may not [apparently – given the contemporaneous “state of the art”] be true today) one of the most basic of the cardinal rules is that one must never copy words of someone else without attribution. Nor can one copy, even with proper citations (that include quotation marks around the purloined text), more words than allowed by “fair use” guidelines. The first of these is called “plagiarism” and the second is “copyright infringement.” In Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s case both of those rules have been completely ignored in her works, even – stunningly – the one for which she won a Pulitzer Prize for her writing.
Stepping Back to 1971: Did the Budding Affair Finally Bloom?
The whispers about an alleged affair between Johnson and his then-twenty-eight year old protégé surfaced in Parade magazine in 1971, four years after they had met at the White House. That article strongly implied that the relationship between Kearns and Johnson was of a romantic nature, as evidenced by how it so upset Lyndon and Lady Bird, and several of his still-loyal sycophants — men like Horace Busby, Tom Johnson, Abe Fortas and Jack Valenti, who predictably insisted that there was nothing to the notion that Johnson had any relationship with Kearns other than a platonic friendship.
By 1972 and 1973, the rumors of their relationship had been percolating among the literati, journalists, academics and Washington politicos for months. The seed from which the rumors grew was traceable back to Ms. Kearns’ own indiscriminate comments, not only from certain friends and associates, but, professional journalists as well. Moreover, a fellow graduate student at Harvard in the early 1970s, a well-known political analyst and author who prefers in this case to maintain his anonymity (probably because they might run in to one another in Martha’s Vineyard), personally stated to me that, “the gossip at Harvard was always that she was LBJ’s lover.”
Concurrently with the swirling rumors which followed the Parade article, Ms. Kearns voluntarily revealed some of her secrets to two reporters from the Washington Post, Richard Harwood and Haynes Johnson. She agreed to be interviewed by them as part of their research for their book titled Lyndon, published in 1973. In addition to the more salacious aspects of her relationship with Johnson, she revealed to them that “she was still having trouble placing it in perspective, that she was troubled about how to handle her personal relationship with Johnson when she published her own book.”
Haynes Johnson stated that he had warned Kearns, in their first interview, to be certain she wanted to have the personal information become public, that she must prepare to “deal with the reactions, cope with the criticism, the consequences of her remarks.” Haynes Johnson said that she was “unconcerned” about all of that at the time they first talked.
After having voluntarily told the two journalists the details of her intimate relationship with Johnson, she took a trip to Russia, where she began having second thoughts about how the story might look to others, who might then begin to question the ethics of someone willing to burnish her professional credentials by becoming intimately involved with the subject of her work. Upon her return, she went to Washington to dissuade the authors from using the very material she had previously provided to them. She told them that those remarks were supposed to be “off the record,” though both journalists denied that she had ever stipulated that at the time of their first interview. Kearns stated that all of this was supposed to be “off the record” and then acknowledged that she had told them too much when she admitted that Lyndon Johnson had fallen in love with her.
Before she went to Washington to meet with the journalists again, she had already talked to the lawyers at Basic Books regarding the process of suing them if they did not delete the material. As it turned out, there was no need for “lawyering up” quite yet, as the journalists reluctantly agreed to delete the direct references Kearns had retroactively retracted. What remains in their book Lyndon is merely a hint at what was there originally.
Despite her attempts to rein in the rumor mill during this period, the speculation about the incident continued to circulate through 1974 and much of 1975. Finally, in the waning days of August, 1975, readers of The Washington Post—having spent the entire summer blissfully unaware of the growing brouhaha involving the late former president and a young woman just beginning her career as an historian—awakened to find it all laid out in a long article which took an entire newspaper page, plus substantial parts of two other pages. It was on the fourth Sunday of that month that Sally Quinn, in The Washington Post Style section, wrote an in-depth story titled “Doris Kearns and Richard Goodwin: A Tale of Hearts and Minds.”
Quinn revealed that Johnson actually courted Kearns during this period, and wrote that Kearns said Johnson had “pressed me very hard sexually the first year” and even proposed marriage to her, though the question of how he would deal with the fact of his existing marriage to Lady Bird was not explained in the article. Quoting Kearns herself, Quinn wrote: “as he talked, I suddenly saw myself wearing an LBJ outfit, sitting by the LBJ lake, making conversation with an LBJ millionaire. Nothing would be mine, perhaps not even myself.”
Bill Moyers said, in his typically logomachical manner, that it was possible: “‘While I don’t really know whether or not he ever said to Doris what she says he said, I suspect she heard accurately what he said without understanding what he meant . . . LBJ said many things to many people in the heat of anger, in the wiles of persuasion and in the passion of frustration which every president faces. He was given to stretching the truth to as thin a soup as necessary to feed a lot of people. . . . He never proposed marriage to me, but he made me feel sometimes as if I might be an illegitimate son.”
On St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2009, Ms. Kearns-Goodwin appeared on the Imus in the Morning television show. Host Don Imus asked her about the times when she would visit Johnson on his ranch and as they floated around the pool, what else they did. Her response was to repeat her promise to reveal more about that sometime in the future, and now that he (Imus) was to be treated for his prostate cancer, he will no doubt live for many more years, so they will get back to that at some point (Unfortuately, Mr. Imus died in 2019 without ever following up on that point). She then proceeded to do a three-minute monologue about how sorry she was that she couldn’t join them in the studio and how she was traveling somewhere with her husband, who had just written his first play at age seventy-eight. By then, Mr. Imus had been distracted enough to change the subject.
Her husband passed a few years ago and now Doris is in her late 70s, still the toast of the town in summers spent on Martha’s Vineyard, long past the heady days of her earlier fame and fortune. The multiple controversies that followed seemed to disappear as quickly as they had surfaced, almost as if her Curriculum Vitae was made of Teflon.
Yet the most tainted product of her writing was the book which somehow equates Lyndon Johnson’s reign of mayhem with what she put into its title: “The American Dream.” Did that “Dream” include the most misguided and internally destructive war in the nation’s history, a succession of assassinations for which he has been accurately implicated, and a planned attack on his own ship that, had it succeeded, would have (near certainly) brought about nuclear war with the Soviet Union? That premise only worked in her book because she left out the well-known realities of Johnson’s tortured psyche and falsely treated him as a morally-balanced, rational and prudent man of great achievement. It was, and remains, stupendously unrepresentative, arguably the worst possible example of the sort. If the 1967 off-Broadway play “MacBird” is ever brought up to date, a new character should be added comparable to Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello — to reflect how the main character weaponized sycophancy through his selection of numerous vulnerable people, one of whom was Miss Kearns, to do his bidding. The reality was that his greatest achievement was about the creation of a contrived legacy, wrought through others by his cunning and guile, using the tools of ingratiation and promises of fame and fortune, to cause the destruction of real history — as it was quickly replaced with artfully fabricated mythology. That fantasy was what she called the “American Dream” and for her own fame and fortune, was a smashing success.
Despite her many years of education — obviously excelling in “creative writing” skills ordinarily intended for novelists — ending in a Ph.D. from one of the world’s most acclaimed universities, she was insufficiently gifted in the “street smarts” required to avoid being exploited by charlatans and grubby politicians. It must have been a fine line she crossed when she entered the White House as a newly minted “Fellow” – even for seasoned professionals; and Doris Kearns, in that period, was very young, impressionable and distinctly unseasoned.
Perhaps she didn’t realize then that she was engaging herself with someone Bobby Kennedy once described as, “the most formidable human being I’ve ever met,’’ as her own husband had once observed.
Final Note: Anyone who remains unpersuaded by the short summary proffered herein, and wishes to satisfy their curiosity about the enormity of the charge, will find a myriad of references to her chronic cases of plagiarism, copyright infringements, and other assorted errors through an internet search. A website called “History News Network,” run through George Washington University, includes numerous such linked documents; one titled “How the Goodwin Story Developed” meticulously details that story in chronological order.
 Wikipedia – Doris Kearns Goodwin: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doris_Kearns_Goodwin
 Quinn, Sally, “A Tale of Hearts and Minds”, The Washington Post, August 24, 1975, pp. E-1, E10-11 (Not available on-line, except through LexisNexis)
 Harwood, Richard and Haynes Johnson, Lyndon. New York: Praeger Publishers,
1973, pp. 156-157
 Kearns, Doris, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991, pp. 11-14
 Nelson, Phillip F., Remember the Liberty! pp. 86-87
 King, Peter H., “As History Repeats Itself, the Scholar Becomes the Story” (Subtitled: “Doris Kearns Goodwin’s highly public life has taken many turns. Questions of plagiarism–and how it is defined–are just one chapter”). Los Angeles Times, August 04, 2002 (See: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2002-aug-04-na-goodwin4-story.html )
 Shenker, Israel, “A Confidante of Johnson Sued by Book Publisher”, The New York Times, May 25, 1975
 Op. Cit. (Quinn)
 Op. Cit. (King article)
 Kearns, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream: The Most Revealing Portrait of a President and Presidential Power Ever Written [sic], p. 374
 Goodwin, Richard, Remembering America, p. 259
 Wills, Gary. New York Review of Books, June 24, 1976
 Henggeler, Paul R. In His Steps: Lyndon Johnson and the Kennedy Mystique. Ivan R.
Dee, 1991, p. 12
 Op. Cit. (King article)
 Op. Cit. (Sally Quinn article)
 Lasky, Victor. It Didn’t Start with Watergate, pp. 203–204
 Goodwin, Richard, Remembering America, p. 415
 Wikipedia published this summary on her page:
“In 2002, The Weekly Standard determined that her book The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys used without attribution numerous phrases and sentences from three other books: Times to Remember by Rose Kennedy; The Lost Prince by Hank Searl; and Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times by Lynne McTaggart. McTaggart remarked, “If somebody takes a third of somebody’s book, which is what happened to me, they are lifting out the heart and guts of somebody else’s individual expression.”
Goodwin had previously reached a “private settlement” with McTaggart over the issue. In an article she wrote for Time magazine, she said, “Though my footnotes repeatedly cited Ms. McTaggart’s work, I failed to provide quotation marks for phrases that I had taken verbatim… The larger question for those of us who write history is to understand how citation mistakes can happen.”
In its analysis of the controversy, Slate magazine criticized Goodwin for the aggrieved tone of her explanation, and suggested Goodwin’s worst offense was allowing the plagiarism to remain in future editions of the book even after it was brought to her attention.
Slate also reported that there were multiple passages in Goodwin’s book on the Roosevelts (No Ordinary Time) that were apparently taken from Joseph Lash’s Eleanor and Franklin, Hugh Gregory Gallagher’s FDR’s Splendid Deception, and other books, although she “scrupulously” footnoted the material. The Los Angeles Times also reported the problems with The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.