Well, that was interesting.
The Goeglein story passed from the unlikely to the absurd in record time, but who knew there was another step to go, into the surreal? Tim Goeglein plagiarized… the Pope:
On April 6, 2005, Roger Cohen wrote in The New York Times: “It was based in the belief that, as he (the Pope) once put it, ‘a degradation, indeed a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human being’ was at the root of the mass movements of the 20th century, Communism and Fascism,”
In a column published Oct. 18, 2005, Goeglein wrote: “A degradation and pulverization of the fundamental uniqueness of each human being was at the root of the 20th century, the twin evils of communism and fascism.” No attribution is given to the Pope or to Cohen in the column.
That’s from my alma mater, The News-Sentinel, to which I take off my hat today. They took what was potentially a grievous embarrassment and made the best of it. The link above takes you to the main story, which has links to the sidebars, but this one — a simple list of the columns and their, er, source material — is the most interesting to me. They’re so strange:
“Foster Park preserves transcendent ideas of beauty that are coming back” – July 5, 2006; “A Wish Came True: An L.A. Museum Displays Klimt Paintings Taken by Nazis and Restored to Family,” by William Booth, Washington Post, April 5, 2006
Foster Park was at the end of my street in Fort Wayne. It’s a beautiful place, with gardens that every year serve as the backdrop for wedding and prom pictures. From the headline, I’d expect a paean to the clematis and tiger lilies. What it has to do with Klimt, Nazis or museums in Los Angeles, I’d like to know. It would be interesting to see the side-by-side on that one. Among others. All the others, actually.
But today I’m trying not to think about the political angle, or the media angle, or whether I’ll ever get to see what he stole from Ben Stein’s Diary, which could hardly be more specific to Ben Stein. Today, I’m trying to understand Tim Goeglein.
If Groucho Marx refused to join any club that would have him as a member, what would he make of a person so desperate to join a club he’d do the one thing that, if discovered, would get him banned from the club for life? Like most journalists, I’ve seen a few cases of plagiarism over the years. They all shared a common thread of desperation. Writers with drinking problems, marital problems, money problems, deadline problems — these were the people who copied and pasted. Some were good people who got in over their heads. Some were lazy. Others were so careless you could only think they wanted to get caught. (One cribbed ad copy from Newsweek magazine. Another, a theater critic leading a trip to/tour of Broadway, sent back reviews lifted from the New York dailies, if I recall correctly.) Anyway, just as in spotting an urban legend you look for the common thread of fear, in a case like this you try to find the desperation. My guess is, Goeglein did what he did to be thought intellectually substantial, a thinker, the sort of guy who can keep up with the Buckleys’ cocktail chatter. But what in the world would lead a young man with so much to lose to risk it all for such a small reward?
As has been noted by the editor of The News-Sentinel, these columns weren’t assignments. They weren’t solicited. There were no deadlines. He wasn’t even paid. Guest columns, in that paper, are offered by readers; basically, they’re somewhat beefier letters to the editor, almost entirely unremarkable. The head of the United Way thanks the community for its generosity, an old woman recalls the good old days, a Chamber of Commerce type encourages support for a worthwhile initiative — that sort of thing. Goeglein was on a pretty leisurely annual schedule of four or five until the last year, when they began appearing more often. I wonder what changed to make him pick up the pace. That’s a subject for his therapist, but I can’t help but note how dangerously close the pilfered pieces were to the originals in the last few years:
“That which has been and that which can never be” – June 6, 2007; “Wilder’s Ode to Mortality,” by Eric Ormsby, The New York Sun, May 16, 2007
“Honoring John Wayne’s centenary” – July 23, 2007; “100 Candles for the Duke,” by Bruce Bennett, The New York Sun, June 20, 2007.
Fort Wayne can sometimes seem like the end of the earth, but it does get internet service, and has lots of people who might read the New York Sun online and wonder why this piece in tonight’s paper sounds like something they’ve read before. A decade-old edition of the Dartmouth Review is one thing, but the New York Times is quite another. We’re either in Stop Me Before I Steal Again territory, or this is a man who simply thought he’d found the perfect place to satisfy his need to be an intellectual — a paper hardly anyone reads. (As an ex-employee, I sometimes suspected it myself.)
I keep thinking of the first of Goeglein’s columns that I really noticed. It was a few years ago, and it ran somewhere around the week between Christmas and New Year’s (and, as far as I can tell, it’s not on the pilfered list). In it, Tim announced that the coming year would be one of self-improvement for him; he would read “the canon,” great books that form the cornerstones of Western civilization. He wouldn’t have time for the entire canon, of course, but a decent survey, and he laid it out month by month, starting with the Greek philosophers, and so on — if it’s July, this must be Jane Austen. I read it and wondered why he was bothering, because he’d obviously made up his mind what to think of each one. I called a friend, an English teacher, and we had a few chuckles over it, but now I see I should have been thinking like a novelist and not looking for an easy laugh; the column seems, in hindsight, to say so much about the guy and his insecurities. Knowledge and erudition was something you could rub on like a salve; a reading list could be a Charles Atlas course so bullies would never kick sand in your face again. A better mind in 365 days, or your money back.
* * * * *
Enough amateur psychoanalysis. Two more things I have to say before this story gets stale:
One, while I appreciate all the compliments on my “reporting,” I cannot emphasize this enough: 75 percent of this story was dumb luck, 22 percent was Sergey and Larry, and I’ll claim the remaining three. Reporting is making phone calls, knocking on doors, conducting interviews and sifting through documents. From the minute I said, “What a strange name to drop; let’s see what Google turns up” to realizing what Goeglein’s column really was, the elapsed time was under 60 seconds. Drafting a post took about an hour. I let it marinate overnight, and to give my friends at the paper a little notice. This story wasn’t low-hanging fruit, it was fruit that smacks you in the forehead when you walk under the tree. The only reason it smacked me and not you was, it was in a part of the orchard people don’t visit very often. (As I said above: As an ex-employee, this is something I always feared.)
Two, I owe an apology to lots of good writers out there. Jonathan Yardley, from whom Tim swiped pieces of his essay on Hoagy Carmichael, which I was tough on, is one of my favorites. All I can say is to echo what a friend of mine said, one who’d looked at both the originals and the ripoffs: he’d developed his own hybrid prose style, what you kids might call a mashup.
With that, I leave any new visitors to discover my own sad truth, sure to reassert itself in the days to come: Most days, this blog is about perverts in the library, bitching about the weather and things you see around Detroit. Daily life, with links and comments — that’s what this blog is. Ah, you’ll figure it out soon enough. Thanks, you 25,000 additional visitors of the last couple days. And in case you were wondering about that new-media business model, Google giveth, but Google doesn’t necessarily giveth. Total Google AdSense revenues for Friday and Saturday, with all those eyeballs? One dollar and 21 cents. Stop by sometime, and I’ll buy you half a latte.