November 16, 2010

Bush memoir rife with plagiarism, says, er, Google

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After some scathing reviews, charges of inaccuracy, bungled TV appearances that no one watched, (at least, not as many people as have been watching the mocking mash-ups on Youtube), and sales that have been only half those of his predecessor’s book, George Bush‘s memoir Decision Points was supposed to finally get some good press yesterday when it was arranged for no less than the ever-shameless Bill Clinton to give it a plug.

But instead, another story took over — as in this headline from a Christian Science Monitor report, “Plagiarism charges fly in Bush memoir controversy.”

The charges first surfaced in a Huffington Post column by Ryan Grimm:

When Crown Publishing inked a deal with George W. Bush for his memoirs, the publisher knew it wasn’t getting Faulkner. But the book, at least, promises “gripping, never-before-heard detail” about the former president’s key decisions, offering to bring readers “aboard Air Force One on 9/11, in the hours after America’s most devastating attack since Pearl Harbor; at the head of the table in the Situation Room in the moments before launching the war in Iraq,” and other undisclosed and weighty locations.

Crown also got a mash-up of worn-out anecdotes from previously published memoirs written by his subordinates, from which Bush lifts quotes word for word, passing them off as his own recollections. He took equal license in lifting from nonfiction books about his presidency or newspaper or magazine articles from the time. Far from shedding light on how the president approached the crucial “decision points” of his presidency, the clip jobs illuminate something shallower and less surprising about Bush’s character: He’s too lazy to write his own memoir.

Grimm went on to detail his charges, which included lifting work from Ahmed Rashid‘s reportage for the New York Review of Books, as well as “several of Bob Woodward‘s books and also from Robert Draper‘s ‘Dead Certain’” …

Many of Bush’s literary misdemeanors exemplify pedestrian sloth, but others are higher crimes against the craft of memoir. In one prime instance, Bush relates a poignant meeting between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a Tajik warlord on Karzai’s Inauguration Day. It’s the kind of scene that offers a glimpse of a hopeful future for the beleaguered nation. Witnessing such an exchange could color a president’s outlook, could explain perhaps Bush’s more optimistic outlook and give insight into his future decisions. Except Bush didn’t witness it. Because, as he himself writes later in the book, he wasn’t at Karzai’s inauguration.

His absence doesn’t stop Bush from relating this anecdote: “When Karzai arrived in Kabul for his inauguration on December 22 – 102 days after 9/11 – several Northern Alliance leaders and their bodyguards greeted him at an airport. As Karzai walked across the tarmac alone, a stunned Tajik warlord asked where all his men were. Karzai, responded, ‘Why, General, you are my men. All of you who are Afghans are my men.’”

That meeting would sound familiar to Ahmed Rashid, author of “The Mess in Afghanistan”, who wrote in the New York Review of Books: “At the airport to receive [Karzai] was the warlord General Mohammad Fahim, a Tajik from the Panjshir Valley …. As the two men shook hands on the tarmac, Fahim looked confused. ‘Where are your men?’ he asked. Karzai turned to him in his disarmingly gentle manner of speaking. ‘Why General,” he replied, “you are my men–all of you are Afghans and are my men.’”

Bush’s lifting of the anecdote, while disappointing on a literary level, does raise the intriguing possibility that Bush actually read Rashid’s article. Doubtful. It was excerpted in the Googleable free intro to his NYRB story. (Still, thinking of Bush browsing the NYRB’s website almost makes it worthwhile.)

In a separate case of scene fabrication, though, Bush writes of a comment made by his rival John McCain as if it was said to him directly. “The surge gave [McCain] a chance to create distance between us, but he didn’t take it. He had been a longtime advocate of more troops in Iraq, and he supported the new strategy wholeheartedly. “I cannot guarantee success,” he said, “But I can guarantee failure if we don’t adopt this new strategy.” A dramatic and untold coming-together of longtime rivals? Well, not so much. It comes straight from a Washington Post story. McCain was talking to reporters, not to Bush.

For further example, Grimm details similarities (in bold) between Bush’s text and that of American Soldier, by General Tommy Franks:

Bush writes: “Tommy told the national security team that he was working to apply the same concept of a light footprint to Iraq… ‘If we have multiple, highly skilled Special Operations forces identifying targets for precision-guided munitions, we will need fewer conventional grounds forces,’ he said. ‘That’s an important lesson learned from Afghanistan.’ I had a lot of concerns. … I asked the team to keep working on the plan. ‘We should remain optimistic that diplomacy and international pressure will succeed in disarming the regime,’ I said at the end of the meeting. ‘But we cannot allow weapons of mass destruction to fall into the hands of terrorists. I will not allow that to happen.’

Franks, in his memoir American Soldier, writes: “‘For example, if we have multiple, highly skilled Special Operations forces identifying targets for precision-guided munitions, we will need fewer conventional ground forces. That’s an important lesson learned from Afghanistan.’ President Bush’s questions continued throughout the briefing…. Before the VTC ended, President Bush addressed us all. ‘We should remain optimistic that diplomacy and international pressure will succeed in disarming the regime.’ … The President paused. ‘Protecting the security of the United States is my responsibility,’ he continued. ‘But we cannot allow weapons of mass destruction to fall into the hands of terrorists.’ He shook his head. ‘I will not allow that to happen.’”

Support from Bush’s publisher has been half-hearted, to say the least — Grimm says a Crown spokesperson “suggest[ed] that the similarities speak to its inherent accuracy,” and his editor “wasn’t immediately able to comment.” Nor was Grimm apparently able to get a comment from the researcher Bush thanks in his acknowledgments, “the brilliant and tireless Peter Rough.”

Perhaps that’s because the evidence seems fairly damning — and, apparently, easy to find. “Look for passages with a number of quotes back to back and then slap the passage into Google Books,” suggests Grimm. What you’ll find, he says, is that those of us who thought Bush didn’t know how to read were wrong. “Not only does Bush know how to read, it turns out, he knows how to Google, too.”

NOTE: The first block quote represents further quotation of Grimm’s article that has been added to the original MobyLives post.

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.

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