Rebecca Kendall Lee, on the attack, made an obvious point of staring at Reginald Raymond Taylor.
“Less than five percent of the aphorisms in the almanacs of your own great Ben Franklin were original,” she said. “The rest were filched—plagiarized—in meaning if not words, isn’t that right, R?”
“R” had long ago become Taylor’s preferred way to be addressed because he detested both of his given names.
More important at this moment, he detested Rebecca.
She stood at her place at a table in a room at the Cosmos Club, a private club in Washington, for this early morning confrontation with R and three other historians of the American Revolution. They were looking into formal accusations against her that had arisen from the recent rumble of newspaper reports on alleged plagiarism and other crimes of creation by some popular writers of American history.
R succcessfully fought off any automatic reaction to her almanac claim. He didn’t smile or frown, shift his head, or move an eye, an eyebrow, or any other part of his body. He also didn’t repeat the fact, definitely known to Rebecca, that Franklin openly admitted to taking most of what appeared in the almanacs from other sources. He just assembled and printed.
Rebecca raised her gaze from R to the others and declared, “So who really knows who takes what from whom? Let any of you or—to borrow a bit from Tennessee Williams’s Cat—any reporters of the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, or any other damned Times who has not snatched an idea, a thought, or a form of words cast the first stone.”
Her defiance was reinforced naturally by her physical presence. Rebecca, who was in her late thirties, was at least five feet ten inches tall and large-boned—almost husky—and wore her long black hair hanging down her back like an Indian warrior in a 1950s movie, a look that had also helped make her a forceful television personality. She was a former colleague of R’s who had, in fact, begun her career with a small book on the hundreds of sayings in Ben’s many editions of Poor Richard’s Almanack. She moved on to be a Ronald Reagan historian and conservative TV political commentator.
R had hoped that Rebecca had demanded to appear before this special committee of the American Revolution Historical Association as a prelude to her accepting some kind of quiet sanction. He should have known better.
When no one responded to her, she added, “I hereby challenge each and every one of you who dares sit in judgment of me to rise now before the God of Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard, or any other person or event of American revolutionary history and swear you have not also similarly sinned.”
R did not rise and swear to anything. Neither did the other three. Only once had they stood, and that was to begin the meeting with a quick toast—sherry, tea, and coffee were available on the table—to the memory of Wallace Stephen Rush, who had died the night before in Philadelphia. Wally Rush was one of America’s leading Franklin scholars, as well as R’s great friend and mentor.
“If you are waiting for our tearful confessions, Dr. Lee, I suspect you wait in vain,” said John Gwinnett, the chairman, breaking the silence of the committee. “This is not a television program, so I suggest you be seated, so we can go about this unpleasant business in an orderly and efficient manner—and so our colleague, Dr. Taylor, can be on his way to Philadelphia.”
Gwinnett was a distinguished professor of history at William and Mary who specialized in Patrick Henry. He was in his mid-seventies, and with his flowing white hair, half-glasses down on his nose, and pure Virginia-gentry accent he was a perfect portrait of an American Revolution historian. His chop at Rebecca about television was consistent with his remarks during a panel discussion at last year’s ARHA annual convention in Boston. He said that serious historians speaking on television about subjects beyond their specialties was “a cheapening, demeaning, indefensible selling of one’s professional credentials that was comparable to whoring.” But another panelist, a young author of a Pulitzer Prize–winning book on the Boston Tea Party who appeared often on television, had responded, “I thinketh the distinguished professor overstates from a position of neglect—and, dare I suggest, jealousy? Maybe if he studied a historical subject that provided insights into the present-day world or was prepared to relate stories of drama or interest, maybe an MSNBC, Fox, or CNN booker would beckon him to appear also. TV Booker Envy is a terrible thing to see in a colleague so distinguished—and so senior.”
Rebecca ignored Gwinnett’s TV comment now. There were clearly more important matters on the table. “I am interested in neither order nor efficiency—not even for R’s and Wally’s sakes,” she said to Gwinnett. “My only interest is in justice.”
She moved her dark-brown eyes slowly from Gwinnett to each of the other faces at the table. But then she did sit down.
The faces besides Gwinnett’s and R’s belonged to Sonya Lyman and Joseph Arthur Hooper. Sonya was a prominent Adams Family Dynasty scholar at Harvard who was a Rebecca opposite in most matters except gender, race, profession, and age. They were both active in a group of women historians, but that was it for compatibility. Sonya was small, unobtrusive, and unassuming. Her hair was beige, straight, and short. Her politics were left, academic, quiet.
Joe Hooper was a fifty-five-year-old light-skinned black man with a beard who taught economic history at Brown and had written extensively on the Founding Fathers’ attitudes toward slavery. His best-known book, The Founding Racists, was mostly an excoriation of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison for their ownership of slaves, but it also contained a grudging tribute to Franklin, whom Hooper labeled “our first abolitionist” for his antislavery leadership after the Revolution.
“We are here today, Dr. Lee, because you asked for a meeting,” said Gwinnett. “We have only begun to assemble the material that will help us resolve the professional and ethical questions that have been raised about your work—most particularly in Ronald Reagan: The Last Founding Father, your 457-page survey of Ronald Reagan’s miracles and achievements, done in an eighteenth- century context—”
Rebecca interrupted, her eyes shining. “Book. It’s a book. I wrote a book, not a survey. Surveys are taken by telemarketers who ask questions over the phone about shampoo preferences and magazine subscriptions. I spent eighteen months of hard work and thought on that book.”
Eighteen months! thought R. And she thinks that constitutes hard work and thought? She knows full well that Wally Rush spent most of his adult life getting into the head and being of Benjamin Franklin. Until recently, R himself had worked on little else in his career apart from Ben, as had many others.
“I stand corrected,” said Gwinnett, who, R knew, had labored for at least thirty-five years on Patrick Henry. “It’s a book that appeared under your name.”
“I wrote it!” Rebecca said. Her voice rose in intensity and volume to match the loathing in those two brown eyes.
“That, of course, is one of the issues now before us,” said Gwinnett. Clearly, if Rebecca thought she was going to roll John Gwinnett, she thought wrong. However, R felt the old professor was being unnecessarily provocative. There was no need to insult her so directly and so snidely.
Rebecca raised her two hands over her head in surrender.
She looked at R. “So, it’s welcome to the railroading—I could say lynching—of Rebecca Kendall Lee, is that it, R?”
R loathed it when people referred to themselves in the third person, but he put a friendly smile on his face and said, “Innocent until proven guilty lies at the heart of the system created by our beloved Founding Fathers, Rebecca. That concept will guide this committee, I guarantee it.”
“Me too,” said Joe Hooper. “I didn’t volunteer and I agreed reluctantly when chosen to perform this duty, Dr. Lee, but I can assure you that I will look at the evidence and arrive at a decision in a fair and unbiased manner. There will be no lynching. They are over—for historians as well as for black people.”
R didn’t know Joe Hooper very well personally and had not seen him in action before. He was clearly solid—and smart. R had wrongly assumed that Hooper was on this committee solely because the ARHA leadership saw a need for diversity—for a non-Caucasian face. That, of course, would run counter to the association’s claim that all four had been selected at random from a bowl that contained the names of the entire membership of seventeen-hundred-plus professional historians.
Now only John Gwinnett and Sonya Lyman were left to declare themselves as fair-minded decent human beings who would not be party to a railroading or lynching of Rebecca Kendall Lee.
It was obvious in a heartbeat that John was going to take a pass on any such declaration. He was clearly not about to make some kind of defensive statement about his ability to run a professional inquiry. His integrity went without saying.
R had to suppress a whoop at the sight of Rebecca and Sonya doing a ten-count dance of glances and stares. Finally, Rebecca aimed her brown lasers right at Sonya’s face, which was turned downward at the table at some doodling she was doing on a notepad. R was unable to see what Sonya was drawing, but he wouldn’t have been surprised if it was a stick figure of Rebecca hanging by her neck from a tree limb. The hostility over politics and style between these two women was well-known. Sonya had once referred to Rebecca at small gathering of women historians as a “right-wing witch.” Rebecca, upon hearing this, was said to have responded, “I’m a moderate in everything but politics.”
Sonya neither raised her head nor said a word now. Rebecca also said nothing.
“Unless you have some specific point you would like to raise, we might as well conclude this meeting,” said Gwinnett to Rebecca. “We will contact you for direct comment once we have done our basic research.”
Rebecca took a deep here-goes breath and looked down as if praying or vowing or collecting her thoughts—possibly all three.
The small room was as silent as it had been since the five professional American historians gathered in it less than an hour ago.
R raised a hand to get Gwinnett’s nod to speak.
“Rebecca, could you give us a rough idea of what we’re likely to find in the research?” he said. “Are there in fact misappropriated phrases, passages, and whatever in your Reagan book?”
“At this point I plead guilty to nothing,” said Rebecca. “I can’t, of course, rule out the possibility of some zealous detective of yours isolating a questionable line or two—but there would be less than a handful and much, much less than the ninety-five percent in Ben’s work.”
“I trust that ‘Everybody does it’ is not your own defense,” R said, and then immediately wished to hell he hadn’t. There are occasions when silence is the perfect response. This was one of those—now missed—times.
“In fact, R, I do have one more thing to say to all of you along those lines,” said Rebecca, now in full fighting mode. She pushed her chair back from the table and stood. Oration and intimidation time had come again.
“Please be forewarned, each and every one of you, my most distinguished colleagues, that yours will not be the only investigation being conducted. Earlier today I made a formal request to the women historians’ organization, of which Sonya is also a member, to assemble a group of researchers to peruse the work of each of you. If they won’t do it, I will. Either way, every word you have individually written in books, articles, and papers, as well as said in speeches and interviews—even in the classroom—will be checked. I call it Operation First Stone. If this comes down to a public fight, rest assured it will not be one-sided.”
This time there was the perfect rejoinder: Nobody said a word.
“I trust I will see all of you in Philadelphia at Wally Rush’s funeral—memorial service—whatever,” said Rebecca at the meeting-room door. Looking at R she added, “It will be on the twenty-first of April, as was Ben’s?”
R nodded in the affirmative.
“Has the time, place, and form been set?”
R shook his head. “That will be worked out later today.”
“Whenever, it will surely be a major gathering of our hallowed trade—most particularly the Crowd,” said Rebecca.
She meant the Ben Crowd. That was what Benjamin Franklin scholars were often called. Wally Rush had been their informal leader.
That thought could have triggered Rebecca’s departing hit. “As a matter of passing and most relevant fact, R, there were some of us lowly grad students around at the time who questioned whether Wally, may he rest in peace, really wrote all of Ben Two.”
R remained absolutely still. Ben Two was the second volume of Wally’s premier Franklin biography. It had won the Pulitzer Prize.
Moments after she was gone and the door closed behind her, Gwinnett said, “In response to Dr. Lee’s insanities and threats, I have only to say—borrowing a phrase from Franklin Roosevelt—‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ ”
There were sighs and smiles and shrugs from Joe Hooper and Sonya Lyman but no words. R couldn’t get a read on whether fear was indeed all they had to fear.
One could have well been thinking, I have only to say—to borrow a phrase from Priscilla Alden—“Speak for yourself, John.”
As they got up to go, Gwinnett, Hooper, and Sonya confirmed to R that each would definitely be in Philadelphia on the twenty-first to pay their respects to Wally Rush.
“Meanwhile,” said Gwinnett, “an independent research firm retained by the ARHA has almost completed its check of Dr. Lee’s Reagan book. The results—the goods, shall we call them—will be dispatched quickly to each of you. I am about to have a right-knee replacement operation, but I would think we should be able to resolve this by conference call in relatively short order.”
All this seemed to R to be going awfully fast. But quicker really was better if “the goods” were, in fact, the goods and not, as Rebecca claimed, fewer than a handful of examples.