Has Scandal Taken Its Toll on Joseph Ellis?

HISTORY ARTICLES

HISTORY, NEWS & POLITICS

HNN, 11-21-04

Has Scandal Taken Its Toll on Joseph Ellis?

By Bonnie Goodman

Ms. Goodman is a graduate student at Concordia University and an HNN intern.

On October 26, 2004 Pulitzer Prize winning historian Joseph Ellis’s latest work, His Excellency, George Washington, was released. The book, which focuses on Washington’s flaws, is the first Ellis has written since his own flaws were revealed in 2001.

For nearly a decade, in his classes at Mount Holyoke on Vietnam and American culture, Ellis would enrich the course content by recounting his own experiences in the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement. In 2000, in an interview with the Boston Globe, he made a number of claims. He said that he had served in Vietnam in 1965 as a leader and paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division. He said that he had worked on the staff of General William C. Westmoreland in Saigon. He said that he had been active in the civil rights movement and in the peace movement.

A little research subsequently revealed that he had lied. As an undergraduate he served in the R.O.T.C at William and Mary, emerging from the program in 1965 as a second lieutenant. Instead of serving in Vietnam, as claimed, he had attended graduate school at Yale. He was not active in either the civil rights movement or the peace movement. After he graduated with a doctorate in 1969, he began active duty, but he served not in Vietnam but as a history professor at West Point, where he remained until 1972, when he finished his duty as a captain.

To many it was a shock that Ellis would risk so much for so little. As Eric Foner, a history professor at Columbia University told the New York Times at the time the scandal broke, “one of the great things about his writing is that he recreates past situations with amazing vividness, maybe he has become a victim of his own ability to do that.” Many believed that Ellis was recreating a past more worthy of his present stature and position. The New York Times questioned his motives: “Why should a man as successful as Mr. Ellis, whose books are those rare creatures, best-selling works of history, feel compelled to reinvent his past? One might almost suppose that he was not so much reinventing his past as confirming his present, projecting his current degree of success backward in time, living up to a version of himself.”

Ellis’s mentor and advisor at Yale, Edmund S. Morgan, suggested a more sympathetic explanation: “I have been in close touch with Joe from the time he arrived at Yale, very uncertain of himself, as most graduate students are, sure that other graduate students were better than he was, as most graduate students think.” It was this uncertainty that might have lead Ellis to recreate a grander past than he actually had. Ellis seemed to agree with this theory. In an interview with the Associated Press he said that he believed he recounted those stories as a result of having a dysfunctional family and an alcoholic father, which leads to a “combination of great achievement and great doubt about yourself.”

Since he had shared so many of these fabricated experiences with his students Mount Holyoke was pressured to discipline him, requiring him to take a leave without pay for a year (though he retained his office and library privileges). Ellis returned to teaching in the fall of 2002. He remains a popular teacher held in high regard by his students. Recently, one student wrote on a professor rating site that Ellis is “a very interesting and intelligent man. He emphasizes multiple perspectives and brings the material to life. His classes draw people who tend to challenge him, but he’s a great professor.” Another student, Charli Lighty, told the Associated Press: “When I first heard about what happened, I thought, ‘Oh, wow! Scandal!’ But that was a long time ago; nobody really cares about that in this class.”

It was during his leave from Mount Holyoke that Ellis began working on his biography of George Washington. Although he had planned to write about Washington before the scandal, Ellis soon began making comparisons between his character and Washington’s. The Associated Press observed that “Ellis suddenly came to resemble one of his historical subjects, a man of high achievement shadowed by flaws in character.” Ellis in his interview with the Associated Press said “the notion that [Washington] could not tell a lie is itself an adolescent fable. But thinking about what right and wrong means, how you deal with your imperfections and how you learn from your mistakes is something Washington does speak to.” The book focuses on Washington’s character and “psychological chemistry,” in a “quest for the famously elusive personality of the mature man-who-became-a-monument,” as Ellis puts it.

Most of the book reviews for His Excellency have been favorable. Publishers Weekly, the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Associated Press have given the book glowing reviews. Publishers Weekly called His Excellency “a magisterial account of the life and times of George Washington, celebrating the heroic image of the president whom peers like Jefferson and Madison recognized as ‘their unquestioned superior’ while acknowledging his all-too-human qualities.” Michiko Kakutani, writing in the New York Times, concluded that His Excellency “provides a lucid, often shrewd take on the man Mr.Ellis calls the ‘primus inter pares, the Foundingest Father of them all.’ And it does so with admirable grace and wit.”

Few reviews made much of Ellis’s scandal, and some did not mention it at all. The most critical review was probably David Hackett Fischer’s in the Boston Globe, which broke the story about Ellis’s scandal. Fischer complained that Ellis was unduly harsh, comparing Ellis’s account of Washington’s military leadership with the infamous debunking books that appeared in the 1920s. Fischer did not bring up Ellis’s past, however, declining to subject Ellis to the same psychological analysis to which Ellis subjected Washington. A review in the Seattle Times, alluding to Ellis’s scandal,concluded: “Ellis faces down a certain irony as Washington’s biographer: How to strip away myth from a venerated figure, yet reveal him still as an accomplished leader, a hero despite his human flaws?” The review itself however was mostly favorable. Ted Widmer’s review in the New York Observer took a light approach to Ellis’s scandal in a flattering review of His Excellency. Excusing Ellis, Widmer wrote: “And no accusation of plagiarism has ever tainted Mr.Ellis’ work (which includes important studies of Jefferson, Adams and the founders as a whole). But still, this Walter Mitty–ish episode was disturbing to his admirers and to generations of his students at Mount Holyoke, the tranquil college in Massachusetts where he teaches.”

The general tenor of the reviews mirrors the sympathetic approach most critics took after Ellis’s lies became known. At the time only a few people seemed willing to take Ellis sharply to task. This puzzled some, like Elliot J. Gorn, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “[M]any of the professors I’ve spoken with feel sympathy for Ellis: They’re afraid they may not be so different. That strikes me as wrongheaded…. the message seems to be that lying to students is less blameworthy than lying in print; that publications are our gods.” David Garrow, the distinguished professor of law at Emory University, also found fault with Ellis, writing: “Knowingly being dishonest in class is just as great an act of moral turpitude as being knowingly dishonest or inaccurate in your written work.” Subsequently, Garrow’s own character came under scrutiny when Gloria Mann, the Law School director of operations at Emory, accused Garrow of simple battery, which led to his own suspension from the university for six months.

The lack of outrage among the academic community and their apparent feeling that there is a difference between professional versus personal dishonesty, and dishonestly in publications versus teaching, has allowed Ellis to return to teaching and scholarly work. University of Georgia historian Peter Charles Hoffer, in his recent book, Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud, argued that Ellis’s own flaws may well have made him sympathetic in a way he otherwise couldn’t be with the heroes he has written about. “I believe that the lies he told about himself and the way he told them changed the way he wrote history,” Hoffer wrote.

In its first week on the New York Times Bestseller list, Ellis’s book reached number 6, suggesting that the scandal has not affected his book sales. The book has also been a main selection of the the Book-of-the-Month Club. Every indication is that readers are flocking to buy Ellis’s book, proving that even flawed characters still deserve a second chance.

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Highlights of Election Night 2004 (Featuring Historians’ Commentary)

HISTORY ARTICLES

HISTORY, NEWS & POLITICS

HNN, 11-05-04

Highlights of Election Night (Featuring Historians’ Commentary)

By Bonnie Goodman

Ms. Goodman is a graduate student at Concordia University and an HNN intern

The Electoral College

• George W. Bush: 286, Number of States: 31
• John F. Kerry: 252, Number of States: 20

The Popular Vote

• George W. Bush: 59,459,765 (51% total) with 3.5 million more votes than his opponent.
• John F. Kerry: 55,949,407 (48% total)

The Congressional Results

The Senate:

• Republican: 55, a gain of 4
• Democrat: 44, a loss of 4
• Independent: 1

The House of Representatives (218 needed for House majority, 435 at stake, 3 undecided)

• Republican: 231, a gain of 4
• Democrat: 200, a loss of 3
• Indepdendant: 1

Governors (11 at stake, 1 undecided)

• Republican: 28; 23 seats not up
• Democrat: 21; 16 seats not up

The Historians

Douglas Brinkley (Director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies, University of New Orleans, NBC)

• “I think it will be decided by midnight on Election Night. I think there’ll be a lot of court cases and a lot of rumbling about ballot boxes that didn’t work properly, and chads that were dangling, but I think by and large there will be a clear victor. I don’t think it will be like four years ago.”
• “There are three big swing states: Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Whoever gets two out of three will win. I think Kerry will win Pennsylvania, Bush will win Florida, and whoever wins Ohio gets to be president.”
• “It’s because he used to be a heavy drinker and he still gives the impression that he’s a pickup-truck-driving Texas rancher/ZZ Top-listening kind of dude, which plays very well in the red states of the South. And it’s amazing if you look at the electoral map right now, you can see that the Republicans control the entire South. Every state that had slavery is for George W. Bush.”

Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

• “There is more skepticism about votes counting than in past presidential elections, because I think it is a belated reaction to the last presidential election. I don’t think the question of vote counting was raised in a massive way until 2000.”

Allan Lichtman (Presidential historian at American University)

• “Any election is a referendum on the party in power, and indeed the majority of Americans judge the record of the party in power…. including this president’s success in keeping America safe from terrorism over the last three years.”
• “This is the deepest cultural divide in the history of the country, with the exception of the Civil War.”
• “They (Democrats) need to rethink liberalism for the 21st century. They haven’t yet made the transition from Franklin Roosevelt. They’ve run from liberalism into empty space.”

Richard Norton Smith (Director of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum on PBS)

• “It’s a long standing tradition, in the nineteenth century, Ohio was called the mother of presidents. They were mostly forgettable presidents but they were presidents never the less. More recently Ohio is a microcosm of America, it’s agricultural, it’s industrial, it’s old ethnic, it’s new ethnic, it’s a remarkable snapshot, and it’s right in the middle of the country. In 1976 Gerald Ford lost the presidency by a whisker, he lost it in Ohio by 11,000 votes to Jimmy Carter, who did well for a Democratic in conservative rural Ohio that is the pattern that the Kerry people hope to repeat tonight.”
• “We’ve heard it over and over again no Republican has ever won without Ohio.”
• “This is a latter-day Wilson presidency,” invoking Woodrow Wilson’s impassioned intervention in World War I to make the world “safe for democracy. It’s going to matter, it’s going to be pointed to – pro and con – for a long time.”

Roger Wilkins (Clarence J. Robinson Professor of History and American Culture, George Mason University, Virginia, on PBS)

• “You got Cleveland in the North, you got Columbus in the central part of the state, and then you got Cincinnati in the southern part of the state. Cincinnati is the home of the Tafts, the really royal dynasty of the state, President William Howard Taft, then the great Senator Robert Taft. The conservative part of the state is in the south where as the formally industrial parts of the state where you had a union stronghold, and Democrats did well, is much weaker now. Cleveland is not the industrial heart it was, but the state is big, its got lots of people, and the mix makes a very interesting kinda neutral test.”

Ellen Fitzpatrick (Professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, on PBS)

• “It is interesting because Ohio has always been a tough one for the Democrats in many ways. When you think about the fate of Ohioans during theGreat Depression where you had unemployment rates of 80 percent in some cities in Ohio, terrible suffering, and the industrial workers of Ohio were reliable for the Democratic Party, but those days are long behind us, and part of it really reflects changes in the economy in the United States over the last thirty years. The Democratic Party cannot sincerely relay anymore on those kinds of votes in a place like Ohio, and we’ll see tonight.”

Michael Beschloss (Presidential historian, on ABC)

• “Well, you know the most fascinating thing in the ABC News exit polls I thought, was the number of people who voted for President Bush because of moral issues. I think the other thing is that when you have a president who is fighting a war that often times trumps everything else.”

Gil Troy (Presidential historian, professor of history, McGill University, on CTV)

• “The big headline from the 2004 election is that the essential dynamic from 2000 re-emerged. Once again, we have a near-deadlock. Once again, the future of the presidency hangs on a closely divided state, in a closely divided nation. Once again, we have a red-blue electoral equilibrium – the chardonnay sipping, quiche eating, New York Times-reading ‘blue states’ – and as the numbers suggest ‘blue people’ — balanced out by nearly equal numbers of the country-western listening, gun-toting, Bible-thumping ‘red states’ and red people – the colors have no inherent significance they just happened to have been used by the TV network mapmakers to signify Democratic and Republican states.”
•”The 2004 exit polls – which did a terrible job predicting state-by-state totals but do a good job reflecting attitudes – confirm this impression for today. Kerry proved most popular with women, the unmarried, Northeasterners, African-American,18 to 29 year-olds, gays and lesbians, first-time voters, and citizens most concerned with education, health care, and the economy. Bush proved most popular with men, married couples, Southerners, whites, the over-60-set, military veterans, evangelicals, gun-owners, and citizens most concerned with strong leadership and the fight against terror. Remarkably, this polarized nation produced a nasty campaign but a peaceful election day – a testament to a political maturity and a civic grandeur for which Americans rarely get credit these days.”
• “God bless America’s beautiful slogan, it’s not a real honeymoon, and I think the danger is that yes, he has 51 percent of the vote, which is relatively strong. Bill Clinton never broke 50 percent, he has the house, the Congress, he has a concentration of power, but not necessarily a broad mandate. He still has that electoral map of blue America and red America.”
• “Second term presidencies always promise a clean slate, a new start. The problem with second term presidencies is they often have emerged what I call the ‘the second term curse.’ Ronald Reagan ran into Iran-contra, Bill Clinton ran into Monica Lewinsky problems, Richard Nixon had Watergate. So what Bush wants to do is to a certain extant stay afloat, he has to watch the problem of becoming a lame duck.”

Stephen Hess (Brookings Institutution, interview with the Associated Press)

• “He may face a somewhat less contentious international community. They’re practical people. They may not like him, but if he’s the president, they have to figure out how to deal with him.”

Larry Sabato (Presidential historian, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia on CBS)

• “Just in recent times, I would say the 1964 Johnson/Goldwater race was one of the most negative presidential battles in all of American history, we’ve had a lot of negative races. We’re able to recover and go along a lot better and faster than we think.”
• “For one thing, every president in American history who had lost the popular vote had not been elected to a second term. The only other presidential father-son ticket, the Adams, both had one term.”

Eric Foner (DeWitt Clinton Professor of History, Columbia University)

• “People who have power want to exercise it. He can do pretty much what he wants.”(On President Bush’s self-proclaimed mandate.)

Richard Reeves (Historian, on CBS)

• “Close to half the people in the country, maybe more, if you ask them what they are, they’re not gonna say either a truck driver, they’re gonna tell you ‘I’m a Christian. The Democratic Party has got to come to grips with that. It’s an important part of being an American, for at least half the country.”
• “I think that the country is divided, I think that the president is being given a chance to make good on his promise four years ago to be a uniter, not a divider. I think it’s a real tough job.”

President George W. Bush: Victory Address

• “We had a long night — and a great night. The voters turned out in record numbers and delivered an historic victory.”
• “Earlier today, Senator Kerry called with his congratulations. We had a really good phone call. He was very gracious. Senator Kerry waged a spirited campaign, and he and his supporters can be proud of their efforts. America has spoken, and I’m humbled by the trust and the confidence of my fellow citizens.”
• “With that trust comes a duty to serve all Americans, and I will do my best to fulfill that duty every day as your president. There’s an old saying, “Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers, pray for powers equal to your tasks.” In four historic years, America has been given great tasks and faced them with strength and courage. Our people have restored the vigor of this economy and shown resolve and patience in a new kind of war. Our military has brought justice to the enemy and honor to America. Our nation — our nation has defended itself and served the freedom of all mankind. I’m proud to lead such an amazing country, and I am proud to lead it forward.”
• “Reaching these goals will require the broad support of Americans, so today I want to speak to every person who voted for my opponent. To make this nation stronger and better, I will need your support and I will work to earn it. I will do all I can do to deserve your trust. A new term is a new opportunity to reach out to the whole nation. We have one country, one Constitution, and one future that binds us. And when we come together and work together, there is no limit to the greatness of America.”
• “A campaign has ended, and the United States of America goes forward with confidence and faith. I see a great day coming for our country, and I am eager for the work ahead.”

Senator John F. Kerry: Concession

• “In America, it is vital that every vote count and that every vote be counted. But the outcome should be decided by voters and not by a protracted legal process. I would not give up this fight if there was a chance that we would prevail. But it is now clear that when all the provisional ballots are counted — which they will be — there won’t be enough outstanding votes for us to win Ohio. And therefore we cannot win this election. I want to especially say to the American people you have given me an honour and gift, I will never forget you and I will never stop fighting for you.”
• “I did my best to express my vision and my hopes for America. We worked hard and we fought hard, and I wish that things had turned out a little differently. But in an American election, there are no losers, because whether or not our candidates are successful, the next morning we all wake up as Americans. That is the greatest privilege and the most remarkable good fortune that can come to us on Earth. With that gift also comes obligation. We are required now to work together for the good of our country. In the days ahead, we must find common cause. We must join in common effort, without remorse or recrimination, without anger or rancor. America is in need of unity and longing for a larger measure of compassion. I hope President Bush will advance those values in the coming years.
I pledge to do my part to try to bridge the partisan divide.”

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