The Write Stuff?
Why Biden's plagiarism shouldn't be forgotten.
Also in Slate: Shmuel Rosner examined the "erratic pragmatism" of Biden's Middle East policy. Jack Shafer called Biden "the unusually creepy kind" of plagiarist.
If that wasn't bad enough, Biden admitted the next day that while in law school he had received an F for a course because he had plagiarized five pages from a published article in a term paper that he submitted. He admitted as well that he had falsely stated that British Labor official Denis Healey had given him the Kinnock tape. (Healey had denied the claim.) And Biden conceded that he had exaggerated in another matter by stating in a speech some years earlier that he had joined sit-ins to desegregate restaurants and movie theaters, and was thus actively involved in the civil rights movement. He protested, his press secretary clarified, "to desegregate one restaurant and one movie theater." The latter two of these fibs were small potatoes by any reckoning, but in the context of other acts of dishonesty, they helped to form a bigger picture.
For all these disclosures, Biden remained unbowed. "I'm in the race to stay, I'm in the race to win, and here I come," he declared. That meant, of course, that his days were numbered. Newsweek soon reported on a C-SPAN videotape from the previous April that showed Biden berating a heckler at a campaign stop. While lashing out at the audience member, Biden defended his academic credentials by inflating them, in a fashion that was notably unbecoming and petty for a presidential candidate.
"I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect," Biden sniped at the voter. "I went to law school on a full academic scholarship." That claim was false, as was another claim, made in the same rant, that he graduated in the top half of his law-school class. Biden wrongly stated, too, that he had earned three undergraduate degrees, when in fact he had earned one—a double major in history and political science. Another round of press inquiries followed, and Biden finally withdrew from the race on Sept. 23.
The sheer number and extent of Biden's fibs, distortions, and plagiarisms struck many observers at the time as worrisome, to say the least. While a media feeding frenzy (a term popularized in the 1988 campaign) always creates an unseemly air of hysteria, Biden deserved the scrutiny he received. Quitting the race was the right thing to do.
Twenty-one years on, how much should Biden's past behavior matter? In and of itself, the plagiarism episode shouldn't automatically disqualify Biden from regaining favor and credibility, especially if in the intervening two decades he's not done more of the same, as seems to be the case. But no one has looked into it. The press should give his record since 1988 a thorough vetting. It's worth knowing whether the odds-on favorite to be our next vice president has truly reformed himself of behavior that can often be the mark of a deeply troubled soul.
Note: In an article about plagiarism, crediting sources seems especially wise. I relied on three books about the 1988 campaign: Jack Germond and Jules Witcover's Whose Broad Stripes and Bright Stars?: The Trivial Pursuit of the Presidency 1988; Sidney Blumenthal's Pledging Allegiance: The Last Campaign of the Cold War; and Peter Goldman and Tom Mathews' The Quest for the Presidency 1988, along with articles from the New York Times and Washington Post.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.
Photograph of Joe Biden by Arnie Sachs/CNP.