Bad history or bad historian?

1 02 2009

I see that my friend and former boss Stan Kutler made it into tomorrow’s New York Times (and not in a good way):

At the center of the quarrel is “Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes,” a 1997 collection of transcripts edited by Stanley I. Kutler, a pre-eminent historian of the Watergate era, that has become the standard reference. Mr. Kutler has been a hero to many people because of a lawsuit he brought with the nonprofit group Public Citizen that led to the release of 201 hours of recordings related to unethical or illegal activity in the Nixon White House.

But longtime critics of his transcripts say Mr. Kutler deliberately edited the tapes in ways that painted a more benign portrait of a central figure in the drama, the conspirator-turned-star-witness, John W. Dean III, the White House counsel who told Nixon that Watergate had become a “cancer” on his presidency.

[emphasis added]

If you know anything about the Nixon tapes, you’ll know that Kutler’s response to the charge makes sense:

“Are you aware under what conditions I worked in 1996?” he said by telephone from Mexico. “It’s only because of my lawsuit that you or anybody else can pick up a tape. In those days, I could not leave the archives with that material. I used state-of-the-lost-art equipment. I brought in a team of court reporters to help me with the first drafts.

“I am responsible for whatever was transcribed,” said Mr. Kutler, recently a plaintiff in a lawsuit to compel former Vice President Dick Cheney to preserve his records. “Did I make any mistakes? Of course. Did I ever make a deliberate mistake, did I ever deliberately transform a negative into a positive?

“Please, I’m a trained historian. I don’t work that way.”

Irrespective of my fondness for Stan, I’ve been worried about precisely this sort of thing for a long time. If people don’t like Kutler’s work, attack the work instead of the the historian. If he did a bad transcript, do a better one. If the 1997 book was a rush job, then ignore the book. There’s no reason to smear the man’s character. What makes it worse is that when you read the article you’ll see that there are obvious political motivations among at least some of Kutler’s attackers. They like Nixon. Kutler can’t stand him.

This is nothing short of the criminalization of historiography, and that’s not a good thing for any historian.

Update: Looks like Jeremy Young agrees with me:

The real fault, however, lies with Klingman and Hoff, who chose to attack Kutler’s character in the press rather than submitting their case to serious adjudication by their fellow historians. I know nothing about the merits of their case against Kutler, but I can’t help but think that his interlocutors wouldn’t be resorting to character assassination if they had sufficient evidence to prove their claims. In any case, their behavior in this affair has been unprofessional to say the least.

And I’m guessing that Young doesn’t know Stan at all.

Update #2: From KC Johnson:

There are, to be short, lots of non-malevolent explanations for mistakes in Kutler’s transcripts—ranging from honest errors in attempting to transcribe the tapes without a good editorial process in place to (perhaps) his choosing to exclude transcripts of one or two conversations not for sound editorial reasons but because they were particularly difficult to hear, and thus transcribe.

At this rate, I will be absolutely shocked if this story has legs.

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2 responses

1 02 2009
Jeremy Young

Nope, never met the guy, nor do I take a position on his transcript of the Nixon tapes. I’m simply responding to what I think is an inappropriate use of the NYT by Klingman to shame Kutler without going through the standard process of peer review.

Thanks for the link, by the way.

23 02 2009
Pure and simple character assasination. « More or Less Bunk

[...] for my friend Stan, this might be the closest thing to an apology he gets. He deserves [...]

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