(Updated Aug. 23) Barack Obama's choice of Joe Biden, the distinguished senator from Delaware, to be his running mate -- and subsequent appraisals of Biden -- should have nothing to do with Biden's unattributed use of other politicians' speeches two decades ago.
As the reporter who first revealed Biden's filching of Robert F. Kennedy's words, I hereby declare that the statute of limitations on those transgressions has expired.
In February 1987, Biden, then a candidate for president, spoke to the California Democratic Party convention in Sacramento. In his speech, he decried the bottom-line philosophy of the Reagan administration, saying:
''This standard is not a measure of how we can evaluate the condition of our society. It cannot measure the health of our children, the quality of their education, the joy of their play. It doesn't measure the beauty of our poetry, the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate, the integrity of our public officials. It counts neither our wit nor our wisdom, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. That bottom line can tell us everything about our lives except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except that which makes us proud to be Americans."
It was moving stuff and it got big applause from the liberal California Democrats. But it was an almost verbatim recitation of a speech by Kennedy given March 1968 at the University of Kansas in which RFK had said:
''The gross national product," Kennedy said in that speech, "does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."
In his Sacramento speech, Biden also said: ''There are those out there who say that there is little that one man can do to affect events. Well, few of us have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can act to affect a small portion of events, and in the totality of these acts will be written the history of this generation."
Nice. But in a June 1967 speech at Fordham University, Kennedy had said:
"Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the totality of those acts will be written the history of this generation."
While the longer Kennedy quote was attributed in the text of the speech handed out to reporters and others, the Fordham quote was not even attributed in the text, which had been crafted in large measure by Biden consultant Pat Caddell.
I stood on the back of the ballroom while Biden spoke, next to Los Angeles lawyer John Emerson, who was running Colorado Sen. Gary Hart's California campaign. He groused to me about how Biden had just used Bobby Kennedy's words. But since Hart had been unable to attend the gathering, I figured Emerson was just miffed that his guy had been shown up by Biden.
So Biden's word theft went unreported.
On Sept. 12, the New York Times ran a story by Maureen Dowd about how Biden had been using portions of a speech by British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock and passing off the language as his own. (After the fact, CNN's Bill Schneider recounted that he had shown a video tape of the Kinnock speech to various people in the U.S. including Bob Shrum, who was working for U.S. Rep. Dick Gebhardt of Missouri; Schneider's editor at the Atlantic Monthly who was a friend of John Sasso's, then running Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis's campaign; and, after a request from Pat Caddell, to Biden. Schneider saw the Kinnock speech as a model of how a candidate could effectively use his biography in a campaign. It was Sasso, apparently, who alerted reporters that Biden was using Kinnock's language as if it were his own history.)
A few days later, I was on the phone with my old friend Joe Trippi, who was at the time also working for Gephardt's presidential campaign. Joe asked me if I thought the Kinnock story would kill Biden's chances.
"No," I replied casually. "He's done that kind of thing before."
"What?" Trippi replied in astonishment.
"Oops," I said. "I gotta go." I slammed down the phone and smacked my head. "What an idiot I am," I thought to myself.
I pulled out my audio tape of the Biden speech and the text that had been handed out. I called Emerson and his associate Rick Allen, another RFK adherent. Between them they had a recording of one of the speeches and a poster of the other.
I called Biden's campaign for comment. Spokesman Larry Rasky sounded annoyed. "I'm not going to engage in text analysis," he said. "This is getting pretty frivolous."
I wrote up a story, demonstrating that the Kinnock steal was not Biden's only act of verbal piracy. It ran on Page One of the Mercury News on Sept. 15, but even more importantly, it went out on the Knight Ridder wire and was used on Page One of the Des Moines Register, Page Two of the New York Daily News and became fodder for an NBC News report in which Biden and Kennedy's speeches were rolled on the screen simultaneously.
Soon after, Biden pulled out of the presidential campaign.
I was just doing my job. I had nothing against Biden. In fact, I was privately pleased that as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was preparing to handle Robert Bork's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.
So what does this say about Joe Biden's character and his qualifications to be Vice President of the United States?
The statute of limitations has run its course on Biden's unattributed use of Bobby's words.
I am aware of nothing Biden has done in the intervening two decades to suggest that Biden is a chronic word thief or that he has a tendency to claim credit for the work or accomplishments of others. Friends of mine who know Biden say he's a man of decency and integrity who has matured enormously in the past 20 years.
Biden can shoot from the lip. He has an annoying habit of flashing an insincere, toothy smile when saying something nasty about an adversary or making a grave observation. He's got an ego the size of Delaware.
But he's proved himself a brilliant senator with deep experience and often penetrating intelligence in judicial issues and foreign policy. He understands international diplomacy and - despite his horrible vote giving George Bush authorization to wage war in Iraq (which he has admitted was a mistake) - has a compelling and worthy record in the U.S. Senate.
I haven't followed Biden's speech-making for two decades. But my strong belief is that he has not since and never will again borrow from anyone else's speeches without attribution.
He made a mistake. He served his time. Case closed.
When it came out that Sasso had sent reporters copies of the Kinnock speech in order to discredit Biden, and when there was some howling from Biden's people about "dirty tricks," Dukakis gutlessly fired Sasso, his longtime consultant, from his campaign.
Schneider and I were talking about it the next day and I asked Bill, "What was Sasso's offense? Spreading vicious truths?"
Bill laughed and later mentioned my remark to E.J. Dionne, then at the New York Times. E.J., I'm told, later mentioned the crack to an editorial writer at the Times and the next day an editorial appeared headlined, "Spreading Vicious Truths." The editorial attributed the remark to a "Washington wag."
Schneider later told me that when he called E.J. to ask why the line had been credited to a "Washington wag," E.J. replied, "Bill, at the New York Times, there are no San Jose wags."
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