I remember having coffee with a friend from work in 2002 just a few days after the death of Stephen Ambrose. Specifically I was defending Ambrose against the plagiarism charges that had been leveled against him in the later years of his life. Like many I was using the Fame Defense, the notion that when Ambrose evolved from an academic to a popular historian he became careless. The plagiarism, in this argument, was a product of this carelessness. I had taken his post-1994 output (the year his D-Day oral history was released) with a grain of salt anyway. I never thought much of the Greatest Generation tribute books and films; Flags of Our Fathers, Saving Private Ryan, etc. were and are roughly akin to the regimental monuments Civil War veterans built in their own later years: celebrations and tributes to a cohort rapidly moving on. I never thought there was anything wrong with such tributes; it is just that one must see them for what they are. And Ambrose for good and ill was the dean of the genre.
Well, the Fame Defense just became considerably more difficult to mount after reading David Frum’s indictment of Ambrose and his scholarship, including his work prior to the fame and fortune he later acquired. Rule # 1: Don’t fabricate interactions with a sitting or retired President of the United States. People are keeping track–and record–of where they are every day. Ambrose is ultimately hoisted on his own petard. Not a happy story, but one that cannot be ignored.
(image by Jim Wallace for the Smithsonian Institution)