By Jack Cashill
When Barack Obama’s two faculty mentors at Harvard Law got in trouble for plagiarism, they were rescued by Dean Elena Kagan.
In 1989, Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe hired first-year Harvard law student Barack Obama as his research assistant. After Obama was elected president, Tribe would gush, “His stunning combination of analytical brilliance and personal charisma, openness and maturity, vision and pragmatism, was unmistakable from my very first encounter.”
Obama had one other prominent mentor among the Harvard faculty, Professor Charles Ogletree, an African American. In the run-up to the election, Ogletree would enthuse, “I’m so excited about this candidacy that I just can’t tell you. I’m just overfull with joy.”
In 2004, Tribe and Ogletree both made the news in ways they might wish they had not. And now in 2010, that news has come back to haunt their Law School dean at that time, Elana Kagan, and, if there is any justice in the world, it should eventually suck in Obama himself.
In September 2004, as Obama was cruising to victory in his U.S. Senate race, Tribe was publicly apologizing for plagiarizing — though, of course, he would not use that term — Henry J. Abraham’s 1974 book, Justices and Presidents, to write his own 1985 book, God Save This Honorable Court.
Tribe’s transgression had come to light only after he had publicly defended his colleague Ogletree, who just three weeks earlier had publicly apologized for the unauthorized heist of verbiage from Yale scholar Jack Balkin’s book, What Brown v. Board of Education Should Have Said, and the stashing of it, nearly word-for-word, in his own book, All Deliberate Speed.
Appalled by Tribe’s hypocrisy, an anonymous tipster alerted conservative scholar Joseph Bottum, who penned a damning 5,000 word article for The Weekly Standard, which revealed the extent of Tribe’s theft and resulted in Tribe’s half-hearted mea culpa.
In reviewing the case, Kagan and then Harvard President Larry Summers faced an obvious challenge: Ogletree was a black star on a faculty often criticized for being overly white; even more problematic, Tribe was the superstar of the judicial left.
Had they been a couple of untenured white guys, Summers and Kagan would have promptly ground them into hamburger, but these two were sacred cows. So they duly appointed a three-person committee of Harvard insiders, headed by former and future (replacing Summers after his resignation) Harvard president Derek Bok. After several months of reluctant inquiry, Summers and Kagan chose not to see the obvious and let the miscreants go essentially unpunished.
Given the politics of Ogletree and Tribe, the media had no interest in pursuing the case or pointing out the injustice of their non-punishment.
Kudos here to the one person who did pursue the case, Lawrence Velvel, dean of the University of Massachusetts Law School, an honest liberal who knew academic legerdemain when he saw it. In April 2005, Velvel posted a nearly 10,000-word analysis on his blog that not only explores the extent of the fraud and the depth of Kagan’s complicity, but that also suggests — without intending to — the inspiration for Obama’s own chicanery.
In the way of background, in 2004, after Ogletree’s sins had become public knowledge, Velvel had criticized him on line, and Tribe had come to Ogletrees’s defense. Tribe conceded that the problem of prominent people, “office seekers” among them, “passing off the work of others as their own” had become “a phenomenon of some significance.” In the next sentence, however, Tribe chastised Velvel for going public on issues “about which your knowledge is necessarily limited.”
Velvel responded to Tribe that if decency prevented outsiders from challenging a story already in the public sphere, “wouldn’t we have to depend for criticisms on those who are closest to the situation, who have the most reason not to discuss it lest they or their institution be harmed, and who are least likely to publicly discuss or criticize?”
Comparably, my understanding that Bill Ayers helped Obama write Dreams From My Father is “limited,” but how could it not be? In my own challenge of Obama’s authorship, I have faced the same response Velvel got from Tribe and responded much as Velvel did: “What do you expect Obama’s editor and publisher to say, let alone Obama himself?”
Velvel’s fears were fully grounded. Summers and Kagan let months pass before even announcing that they had appointed a committee composed of Bok and two other Harvard honchos. In April 2005, the committee reported its findings to the pair, although the report itself, if even written, was not released.
Not surprisingly, Summers and Kagan concluded of Tribe’s transgression that it had happened twenty years earlier, that it was the “product of inadvertence,” and they now “consider the matter closed.” Writes Velvel of their conclusion, “it is a travesty. Its language is misleading, its logic miserable, and its spirit corrupt.”
What troubled Velvel most is this: Ogletree and Tribe could claim “inadvertence” because they both almost assuredly allowed their research assistants to write major stretches of the book for them. Writes Velvel, “Ghostwriting, horribly enough, has become all too prevalent in academia as a general matter.”
The fact that Ogletree used ghostwriters, says Velvel, is “widely accepted.” The case against Tribe is nearly as strong. The instances of “copycatting,” including one identical 19-word pilfering, “seem to be more like what one would expect of a student than of a Tribe.” What is more, as Velvel points out, a 1993 article in a Washington law newspaper, called Legal Times, addressed the claim of a former Tribe assistant, Ron Klain, that he had written large sections of Tribe’s God Save This Honorable Court.
“That Harvard is setting a very bad example, with all too much of the bad stuff centered in its law school, is all too evident,” writes Velvel. One unfortunate consequence of this phenomenon is that the young are watching and learning from the masters. Here is how Velvel imagines their thought process might go.
On balance, it is well worth it, for on the one side lies fame and fortune, and on the other lies only a slap on the wrist. And, especially if I can hide my misdeeds for years (as seems usually to occur), and in the meanwhile have become a big deal, I am virtually assured of suffering nothing other than a minor slap on the wrist if and when I am finally caught.
Did Obama take his cue from Tribe and/or Ogletree. When pressed by his contractual demands, and unable to finish his book, did one or the other of his academic mentors whisper in his ear, “Have someone else write it. We do this all the time.” If so, his appointment of Kagan makes sense. She has a history of whitewashing the sins of those more powerful than she.
Velvel wanted to see Kagan fired. “So, in my view, Kagan too should go,” he writes. The result of her complicity with a corrupt faculty leads Velvel to an inescapable conclusion:
Since it is now known that Harvard professors have plagiarized, copycatted, and pretty certainly have had stuff ghostwritten for them, the bona fides and reputations of nearly everyone at Harvard is called into question, especially people in the law school.
I could not agree more.
Jack Cashill’s latest book is Popes and Bankers.