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James Heffernan

James Heffernan

Posted: February 22, 2008 09:01 PM

OK, Hillary, Let's Talk About Plagiarism


You don't give up easily, do you?

Earlier this week, just before the primaries in Wisconsin and Washington, you charged Barack Obama with plagiarizing a passage from a speech given by Deval Patrick, the Governor of Massachusetts. Though your charge fizzled (Obama won both of those primaries), you tried it again last night in Texas while debating Senator Obama. "Lifting whole passages from someone else's speeches," you said, "is not change you can believe in. It's change you can Xerox."

A catchy phrase, Senator. And now perhaps you'll tell us which of your speechwriters coined it for you.

Or did you mint it yourself? And will you unequivocally declare that you never have and never will use speechwriters? Or that if you do, you will always acknowledge their contributions?

If you don't, of course, you will have plenty of precedents, including your husband Bill. To the best of my knowledge, no president has ever cited the name of a speechwriter while giving a speech. But strictly speaking, anyone who gives a speech that has been wholly or partly written by someone else and fails to acknowledge his or her contributions is committing plagiarism, which is "the practice of claiming or implying original authorship of (or incorporating material from) someone else's written or creative work, in whole or in part, into one's own without adequate acknowledgement." (Source: Wikipedia). By this definition, which makes no exceptions, every president who has ever used a speechwriter is a plagiarist. (Just like every TV talk show host who uses material furnished by his or her writers -- now back finally back on the job.)

If you don't agree, Senator, then you have to admit that not every case of unacknowledged borrowing in a speech can be considered plagiarism. And that is surely the case with what Barack Obama allegedly plagiarized from Deval Patrick.

Here are the facts.

In October 2006, when he was running for the governorship of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick responded as follows to his opponent's claim that he had nothing to offer but words:
"Just words," he said. "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. 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 weekend Senator Obama spoke as follows:

"Don't tell me that 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."

So what do these two passages have in common? By a strict definition of plagiarism, BOTH ARE PLAGIARIZED. Without even mentioning the names of Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, or Martin Luther King, Jr., Deval Patrick used their words, and Barack Obama did the same. But surely, you will say, no one needs to acknowledge such well-known statements.

Oh really? So now we must add another exception to the rule about plagiarism, which nicely complements the first. For we don't know -- and probably never will know -- whether or not it was JFK or Theodore Sorenson who came up with the famous line about what you can do for your country. (Sorenson won't say.) Even Jefferson probably deserves something less than full credit for the line about men being created equal. In drafting the Declaration of Independence, he not only drew on a rich tradition of Enlightenment thought but also -- as Pauline Maier has shown in AMERICAN SCRIPTURE (I'm happy to cite this source) -- on the language of similar declarations already made by several of the colonies. Why did Jefferson not cite the source of every idea and phrase that he used? And when Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, why did he not say that our nation was "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the principle enunciated in the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson (with hints from other sources too numerous to be identified here) that 'all men are created equal'"?

Once again, we could say that Lincoln did not need to cite the source of such a landmark principle. Speaking out of American history even as he took his place in making it, he made his speech unforgettable by giving new meaning to an old dictum, by intimating that "all men" might mean just exactly what it said -- unlike the rules against plagiarism. To judge Obama's speech as mere plagiarism is to miss its crucial point about the role of language in American life. Anyone who thinks that words have played no part in the building of this nation -- that they were not just as vital as all the blood shed by its soldiers -- simply does not know its history.

Right now, its history is being re-made by an inspiring new generation of African-American leaders such as Deval Patrick, Cory Booker (mayor of Newark), Adrian Fenty (mayor of Washington), and of course Barack Obama. A hundred years from now, historians may remember them as the founding fathers of a new America, conceived in the audacity of hope and dedicated to the principle that all the men and women of this country can thrive on common ground. What could the founding fathers have done without each other's help? Why should we grudge one African-American leader the right to borrow a rhetorical technique from another?

For that is virtually all he took. Apart from the two-word phrase, "just words," all the other "plagiarized" words that Obama used come from QUOTATIONS that Patrick himself used without acknowledgement. The act of quoting cannot be plagiarized. If you quote from Lincoln in a speech, book, or article, I can legitimately use the same quotation without mentioning you. And no one owns a rhetorical technique. If Deval Patrick can expose the fallacy of thinking that all words are "just words" by quoting words that resonate for all of us, so can Obama.

And so I ask you, Senator: do you really think "plagiarism" is a just word for what Obama did?