Why you shouldn't call Obama's speech plagiarism.

Media criticism.
Feb. 19 2008 6:39 PM

Don't Call It Plagiarism

Obama's sound bite, considered.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

The speed with which reporters have circled Barack Obama to defend him against charges of plagiarism coming directly from the Hillary Clinton campaign indicates that the press is in the tank for Obama or—less conveniently for Clinton—that she's guilty of inflating his poor footnoting into grand theft larceny.

According to U.S. News & World Report, the Feb. 18 network news broadcasts "were not particularly sympathetic to Clinton's charge, with two of them playing down its importance." ABC News' Jake Tapper dismisses with "Hmmmm" Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson's claim that had Clinton used Gov. Deval Patrick's, D-Mass., words as Obama did, it wouldn't have been that big a deal because, Wolfson said, she's "not running on the strength of her rhetoric." Time's Ana Marie Cox writes, "No one's buying" the Clinton charge of plagiarism, "not even the Republicans," linking to a National Review Online post.


At the New Republic, Noam Scheiber catalogs the "multiple riffs [Clinton has] filched from other candidates," and Jason Zengerle establishes that if Obama did plagiarize Patrick, he robbed a source that he's credited before: In a December speech, Obama prefaced a quotation thusly: "I'm stealing this line from my buddy Deval Patrick. …"

Just in case you're living in a news blackout, here are the contested words. First, what Obama said in Milwaukee on Saturday night …

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? "We have nothing to fear but fear itself"—just words? Just speeches?

… and now, Patrick on the stump in 2006:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." 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!

(Just so you know, I didn't vote for Obama in the Virginia primary and won't vote for him if he makes the November ballot.)

Without a doubt, Obama echoes Patrick note for note, and if he had included this passage as part of a student paper at, say, Harvard, the school would rightly condemn him for plagiarism, which the school defines as "passing off a source's information, ideas, or words as your own by omitting to cite them—an act of lying, cheating, and stealing."

On the conceptual level, nobody can accuse Obama of having stolen from Patrick the ideas or the information that "words matter," a proposition that is self-evident to every educated person this side of Hillary Clinton.

So, did Obama steal the words?

I think not. Most campaign speeches are composed by speechwriters who assume the candidate's persona. The candidate becomes the public "author" of these words when he speaks them, even if all he did was a light edit of the script. A speechwriter would never claim he was plagiarized by his candidate, nor would a volunteer. In fact, the volunteer would be elated.

Patrick and Obama, who rely on the same campaign wizard, David Axelrod, have shared enough campaign rhetoric to be declared separated at birth, as this Boston Globearticle from 10 months ago shows. Here's additional evidence of Patrick-Obama sharing from Jake Tapper's blog. As someone who has endorsed and advised Obama, Patrick occupies the position of a campaign volunteer or even a collaborator. Given the conventions of campaign oratory, I'd have a hard time diagnosing plagiarism on Obama's part—as opposed to poor form—unless Patrick alleged that his friend fleeced his words, which he hasn't and won't.

If there is an undiscovered country of plagiarism, it is the less scrutinized region of performance. Sen. Joseph Biden, a thoroughly imperfect candidate, learned this the hard way during his 1988 run for the presidency.

Biden was accused of plagiarizing British politician Neil Kinnock at the Iowa State Fair, where he used Kinnock's words without credit. Even though Biden had previously cited Kinnock while giving this spiel, what ultimately murdered his candidacy in the eyes of his critics was the fact that he had also lifted Kinnock's "gestures and lyrical Welsh syntax intact," as Maureen Dowd reported in breaking the story for the New York Times.

Did Obama steal Patrick's performance? I don't even think Howard Wolfson would make that claim.


Full disclosure. I stole my lede from Slate's Julia Turner and a couple of essential ideas from colleague John Dickerson. I looted Timothy Noah's small cranium for ideas, too. Please don't blame them for the deficiencies in this piece, blame me with e-mail. Send to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: Here's a hand-built RSS feed that will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Deval in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.



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