With the glee of a conservative in the 1990s catching Bill Clinton with a new girlfriend, the Hillary Clinton campaign has accused the 21st century Teflon man, Barack Obama, of plagiarizing one of his speeches from Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. As reported by the Politico’s Mike Allen, and others, the Clinton campaign publicized two YouTube links showing the two friends’ overlapping rhetoric.
On October 15, 2006, speaking of his female opponent Kerry Healey, Patrick said: “But her dismissive point, and I hear it a lot from her staff, is that all I have to offer is words — just words. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, [applause and cheers] that all men are created equal.’ [Sustained applause and cheers.] Just words – just words! ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Just words! ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ Just words! ‘I have a dream.’ Just words!” Last Saturday night in Milwaukee, Obama said: “Don’t tell me words don’t matter! ‘I have a dream.’ Just words. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ Just words! [Applause.] ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Just words — just speeches!” In response someone only identified as “an Obama official” said: “They’re friends who share similar views and talk and trade good lines all the time.”
Plagiarism is a serious charge, especially to those of us in the academy. But this is a confusing case. On the one hand, as historians familiar with the history of campaigning, we immediately think of Senator Joe Biden, who withdrew from the 1988 campaign in disgrace when the Dukakis campaign circulated a videotape of Biden stealing a biographical riff from the British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. (It turns out that Biden usually did acknowledge Kinnock but that particular time lapsed – and watched his campaign implode). Like Biden, Obama should be held to a high standard because so much of his political identity rests on his rhetoric. On the other hand, as historians who assess many speeches, we know that great oratory resonates because it builds on our collective memory banks, offering original twists on familiar phrases. Moreover, as lecturers, we know that when we speak spontaneously we cannot be as scrupulous about not echoing others as we are in our writing – and Obama’s riff was spontaneous, it was not written out in his prepared remarks.
On a personal note, I was particularly intrigued by the Obama defense that, in essence, this was part of an implicit collaboration, an ongoing partnership and brainstorming with a friend. Without mentioning names so as to avoid embarrassing the reporter yet again, I was once contacted by a reporter who accused another reporter of plagiarizing my work. The alleged plagiarist mentioned me twice in his article, but then had an unattributed riff that clearly echoed my work. I emailed the accuser, saying, that given the other citations, and the fact that I had been interviewed by the reporter numerous times, and was always mentioned in the ensuing articles, I was not offended, did not consider it plagiarism, and often gave journalists more slack considering their time and space constraints. The accusing reporter then called me up and asked me, “would it be okay if one of your students did not document part of a paper?” Cornered, I admitted that no, it would be “unacceptable” if a student submitted a paper without properly attributing a paragraph that was based so clearly on someone else’s work. With that, the accuser had his “j’accuse.” He ran the story, embarrassed his colleague, and the accused reporter never interviewed me again.
According to Peter Slevin of the Washington Post, Obama dismissed the plagiarism charges. “Well, look, I was on the stump,” he said. Speaking of his friend Governor Patrick, Obama said: “He had suggested we use these lines. I thought they were good lines. I’m sure I should have. Didn’t this time.” All in all, Obama doubted “this is too big of a deal.”
In thinking this issue through, I think it is a bigger “deal” than Obama concedes. His campaign – in fact the stolen riff itself – emphasizes just how important his words are to his campaign, and words are to American politics historically. Obama missed an opportunity with his airy dismissal. He could have said, “I’m sorry, that was wrong.” In so doing, he would have distanced himself from both George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton – two of the leading American politicians least likely to apologize. In one classy moment, Obama could have proven that his rhetoric is real, that he really is the candidate of change. Instead, the usually nimble junior Senator from Illinois gave us all the same old Washington shuffle. What a pity that he chose to imitate the ways of his new hometown when trying to defend his occasional penchant for mimicry on the stump.