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.

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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.