Senator John Walsh, a Montana Democrat, was exposed as a plagiarizer, just as his chances of reelection were improving. But he's hardly the only one of his brethren to steal the words of someone else. Is there something about the U.S. Senate that makes this more likely?
Senator Walsh was running behind in a red state in 2014, but he was experiencing a boost in political fortunes. He narrowed a wide gap against his opponent, Congressman Stephen Daines, to hold the seat of Senator Max Baucus, who resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China, and clearly had momentum on his side, when the New York Times revealed his plagiarism.
Unfortunately, it's hardly the only case of a U.S. Senator lifting the words of others.
During the 1988 presidential campaign, it was revealed that then-Delaware Senator Joe Biden had stolen words belonging to British Labor Party Leader Neil Kinnock. Biden dropped out after such revelations were made. His attempt at a presidential comeback failed in 2008, and even though he's Vice-President, Democrats seem unenthused about his possible candidacy in 2016.
Illinois Senator Barack Obama borrowed words from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick during his 2008 presidential campaign. Obama didn't give Patrick any credit. Patrick didn't make a big issue about it, and the media didn't cover it much (I wrote a column criticizing Obama for it, and knocked Biden in the process, not realizing the two would later team up). But taking someone else's words is still taking someone else's words.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul found himself in some hot water when a number of written pieces with his name on them were found to have liberally plagiarized from other works. Senator Paul was riding high in the Republican polls for the 2016 Presidential primary. Now he's back in the crowded field, still struggling to separate himself from the pack.
Here's what we know about Senators who plagiarize, and why the institution seems to have several who steal words.
1) They Offer Lame Excuses
Senator John Walsh claimed that he was suffering from PTSD, which made him do it. Thousands of Iraq War veterans, Afghanistan War veterans, Vietnam War veterans, and others who served this country, suffer from PTSD, and don't engage in academic dishonesty or any other type of theft as a result. I'm sure the horrors of war had nothing to do with him cutting and pasting from several papers, and turning them in under his own name.
2) They Offer Lots of Hubris
Senator Rand Paul initially refused to take responsibility, claimed he credited his sources, and threatened to "fight a duel" with anyone accusing him of such behavior, hoping to get the Andrew Jackson vote from frontiersmen, or at least appeal to Aaron Burr fans.
3) It Rarely Happens Once
It turns out that Senator Biden was also disciplined while at Syracuse University for similar academic dishonesty. Senator Paul and/or his staff plagiarized on several occasions. President Obama is accused of plagiarizing from George W. Bush's speechwriter.
4) They Refuse to Be Accountable for Their Actions
If Senator Walsh resigns over the plagiarism scandal, it would be a first. But he says he won't step down. None of the Senate plagiarizers ever do, even though similar actions could lead to a dismissal for a college kid who does it.
5) The Media, Politicians, and Voters, Often Give Senators a Pass.
The myth is that the media holds politicians accountable for plagiarism. After all, didn't Biden drop out of the presidential contest 26 years ago? But he was not hounded into resigning from his seat in the U.S. Senate. Senator Obama was not held accountable. The media dropped the plagiarism case after a few days, and has not beat the drum for Senator Paul to step down. And Montana Governor Steve Bullock rushed to defend Senator Walsh, the man he appointed to his job.
Unless we vote against members of the U.S. Senate who plagiarize, expect a whole lot more of them to keep this tradition of theft alive.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.