Reagan Authors Clash: Craig Shirley Accuses Rick Perlstein Of Lifting Copy

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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As Page Six is reporting, “Craig Shirley, who wrote two award-winning books on Ronald Reagan, claims Rick Perlstein plagiarized his prose in at least 45 instances in his new book, ‘The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.‘”

Shirley’s attorney sent two letters to Simon & Schuster (one of which referenced by Page Six), that have been obtained by the Daily Caller. In the first, Shirley’s attorney claims that Mr. Perlstein:

lifts without attribution entire passages from Reagan’s Revolution—in some instances, attempting to conceal his theft by altering words or re-ordering sentences, but in other instances not even bothering to do so. Second, he presents—again without attribution—facts and ideas Mr. Shirley first discovered and developed, recounting them instead as if they were widely known or as if he himself had discovered and developed them.”

In a follow-up letter, Shirley’s attorney continued,

“[W]hile Mr. Shirley is referenced in the online source notes for these passages, the address at which those notes are posted appears nowhere in The Invisible Bridge or on its dust jacket—a fact which further evidences Mr. Perlstein’s intent to steal and conceal.”

Perlstein and I engaged in a pretty thorough back-and-forth on Twitter this evening. Essentially, he argues that such citations needn’t be in the book, so long as they are on his website. This might be a new paradigm for publishing going forward, but it certainly defies the current protocol.

And …

You can read most of our exchange here.

Page Six cited what may be the most egregious example (look for the word “festooned“), but the letters from Shirley’s attorney cite numerous examples of “facts and ideas” that appear to have been “first discovered and developed” by Shirley. This is from page 72 of Shirley’s book, Reagan’s Revolution,

“Whenever he flew, Reagan would sit in the first row so he could talk to people as they boarded the plane. On one occasion, a woman spotted him, embraced him and said ‘Oh Governor, you’ve just got to run for President!’ As they settled into their seats, Reagan turned to Deaver and said, ‘Well, I guess I’d better do it.’”

And (according to Shirley’s attorney) this is from Perlstein’s book:

“When Ronald Reagan flew on commercial flights he always sat in the first row. That way, he could greet passengers as they boarded. One day he was flying between Los Angeles and San Francisco. A woman threw his [sic] arms around him and said, ‘Oh Governor, you’ve got to run for president!’ ‘Well,’ he said, turning to Michael Deaver, dead serious, ‘I guess I’d better do it.’”

An obvious question: Perlstein’s website is nifty, but why not also cite Shirley in the book, itself? After all, a person reading the book might not check out the website. There’s also the problem of websites disappearing. Will this one be around in 25 years?

And websites can also be updated retroactively — meaning that someone could theoretically conceal or later alter things that were previously not cited. Wouldn’t it be more transparent — and frankly, almost as easy — to just do both? I asked him about that:

(Considering the book already costs around $30 — and is around 880 pages long! — Perlstein’s concerns about additional cost and length could either be interpreted as utterly absurd — or absolutely born of necessity.)

At the end of the day, I think there are a few interesting things at play here.

First, this comes on the heels of a couple other prominent stories alleging plagiarism.

Second, I think there is a question as to whether or not Perlstein is attempting to change the publishing paradigm.

In the future, will all books come with a website where sources and citations are found and only found (and easily linked)? Is this a sort of hybrid e-book/hardcopy idea.

… Or is it something more sinister? I suppose the attorneys will figure that out.

Lastly, don’t discount the fact that history matters; narratives matter. During a brief phone call today, Shirley implied Perlstein’s book was a liberal’s version of conservative history.

Shirley, a movement conservative, was a player during much of Reagan’s Revolution, and interviewed hundreds of sources when writing his Reagan books — many of whom he knew from the movement.

This is not to suggest Shirley’s books are mere hagiographies, but it is to suggest that he might object to someone using his spade work to then introduce errors into the historical record (which he suggested to me was the case) — or to otherwise undermine Reagan’s legacy.

To a certain degree, I suspect this is about more than just lifting copy — it’s also about rewriting history.