Plagiarism—that is, the intentional lifting of others’ words and passing them off as your own—is something that gets writers and academics excited but seldom registers with the general public. Except when someone famous, or at least semi-famous, gets caught doing it and the media takes notice, reminding everyone that such literary theft is at least very bad form.
Which is what’s just happened to a member of the still-forming administration of President-elect Donald Trump. Monica Crowley, who’s been slated to serve in the new White House as the senior director of strategic communications on the National Security Council, a plum job which she’s suited for as a longtime right-wing media gadfly. A fixture on Fox News for years, as one of that network’s stable of fetching blonde talking-heads, Crowley would seem to be an ideal fit for such a high-profile position.
She also has academic pedigree and has published several books. Crowley received her Ph.D. in international relations from Columbia and served for years as research assistant to former President Richard Nixon, acting as his academic factotum during his final years. After his 1994 death, Crowley published two serious, somewhat scholarly books about the former president, in 1996 and 1998, respectively.
However, her big splash in publishing came in 2012 with the publication by HarperCollins of What the (Bleep) Just Happened, a less-than-scholarly tome, indeed a semi-comic one lambasting President Obama in the manner of so many right-wing books over the last eight years, which have aimed to preach to those already converted by Fox News. The book became a best-seller and raised her already high profile in conservative media circles.
It’s therefore a big problem for her that a close examination of that book by CNN Money has revealed that significant chunks of that best-seller aren’t Crowley’s own work. In more than 50 cases, she had lifted quotes, verbatim—in some cases entire paragraphs—from other sources, including op-eds, think tank reports, even Wikipedia. Having investigated plagiarism cases in my academic career, what Crowley did in What the (Bleep) Just Happened represents a remarkably flagrant example of literary theft, one that could not have happened by accident. CNN Money’s investigation demonstrates that Crowley stole the work of many others, whole hog, without any effort at attributing where “her” writing actually came from.
Plagiarism is a fact of literary life, albeit one that polite people don’t like to talk about, and one of the oddities of this particular sleazy activity is that practically nobody ever plagiarizes just once. It usually starts early, often in graduate school, when time is short and assignments are long, and once authors get accustomed to stealing the words of others, without getting caught, they keep at it.
Which is exactly what seems to have happened here. Examination of Crowley’s 2000 Columbia doctoral dissertation reveals—surprise, surprise!—that there’s a lot of plagiarism to be found there too. Specifically, a POLITICO investigation has determined that her dissertation, a turgid-sounding work entitled “Clearer Than Truth: Determining and Preserving Grand Strategy: The Evolution of American Policy Toward the People’s Republic of China Under Truman and Nixon,” betrays a similar pattern of literary theft. As POLITICO explains:
An examination of the dissertation and the sources it cites identified more than a dozen sections of text that have been lifted, with little to no changes, from other scholarly works without proper attribution. In some instances, Crowley footnoted her source but did not identify with quotation marks the text she was copying directly. In other instances, she copied text or heavily paraphrased with no attribution at all.
Although this isn’t the sort of thing that animates Main Street, in media and scholarly circles such misconduct is scandalous. Columbia has yet to comment on the case, but they have taken away advanced degrees before when a dissertation was found to contain significant plagiarism.
Crowley is avoiding the media, while the Trump transition team has stood by her so far, with a spokesman telling CNN after their initial story broke:
Monica’s exceptional insight and thoughtful work on how to turn this country around is exactly why she will be serving in the Administration. HarperCollins—one of the largest and most respected publishers in the world—published her book which has become a national best-seller. Any attempt to discredit Monica is nothing more than a politically motivated attack that seeks to distract from the real issues facing this country.
However, Team Trump did not respond to POLITICO’s queries about Crowley’s dissertation and it’s not clear if they will keep standing by their nominee in light of the latest revelations of her misconduct. Although Trump values loyalty above all else, a strategic communications boss on the NSC who’s a known plagiarist may not be the best public messaging for a brand-new White House.
Not to mention that the budding administration’s citing of HarperCollins in her defense carries no weight now, since her publisher has pulled the book in question from the shelves with the pointed explanation that Crowley’s best-seller “will no longer be offered for purchase until such time as the author has the opportunity to source and revise the material.”
It’s tough to see how this drama will end well for Crowley, since it’s a safe bet that every word she’s ever published is now being scrutinized with a fine-tooth comb by researchers looking for more examples of plagiarism. This is not her first offense, either. Back in 1999, a piece Crowley wrote about Nixon for The Wall Street Journal turned out to have entire sentences lifted verbatim from a 1988 piece published in Commentary by the British journalist Paul Johnson. Crowley denied any wrong-doing, implausibly suggesting she had never read the piece she had plagiarized. Her career marched onward, undiminished—at least until now.
If Trump changes his mind about Crowley’s ability to serve in his administration, this won’t be the first time that plagiarism fells a rising political star. Almost six years ago, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, Germany’s defense minister and a major political up-and-comer, resigned his cabinet post when his university stripped him of his doctorate over plagiarism. He denied any intentional wrong-doing, protesting that he was overtaxed in graduate school and rushed his writing, sloppily, but it did no good.
Crowley’s biggest concern now has to be that even more incidents of her plagiarism will emerge. That was what happened to Stephen Ambrose, the esteemed historian, who back in 2002 was discovered to have plagiarized throughout his entire career. He had lifted sentences from others’ works in several of his best-selling books. As he transitioned from academic historian to a popular writer who churned out a new best-seller every year or two, quality suffered and the plagiarism inevitably got more flagrant.
Further investigation revealed that Ambrose’s plagiarism stretched all the way back to—you guessed it—his doctoral dissertation, and he had even faked the achievement that had put him on the academic map, namely a series of detailed interviews with former President Dwight Eisenhower which resulted in a successful multi-volume biography of the legendary Ike.
Careful analysis turned up that Ambrose could never have conducted all the interviews he claimed with Eisenhower; in reality, he had only spent a few hours with Ike. It was all a massive fraud. Perhaps conveniently, Ambrose succumbed to cancer only a few months after his career fell apart, and the scandal was allowed to die with him.
I take plagiarism seriously in part because I’ve been a victim of it. A couple years back, I discovered that the best-selling British journalist-turned-amateur-historian Max Hastings had lifted some of my published work for (his) fun and profit. I pointed out what he had obviously done, but Hastings walked away, unscathed. This is what usually happens when the plagiarist isn’t a rising politician or media gadfly
Monica Crowley may not turn out to be so fortunate. Numerous researchers are poring over her published work right now, and if she’s committed more plagiarism, they will undoubtedly find it. Plagiarism is a serious matter since it reveals something important about the moral compass of the plagiarist, particularly if it’s not an isolated case—which it usually isn’t. If President Trump wants to have known literary thieves on his senior staff, that will say something important about his moral compass too.
John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee.