THE PLANK FEBRUARY 18, 2008
We asked former Bill Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet if today's plagiarism accusations against Barack Obama were justified. In his mind, was what Obama did acceptable, or a violation of speechmaking ethics? Here are his thoughts ...
Barack Obama’s greatest strength is the originality of his rhetoric. Sometimes he talks like a regular person, as in his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, when he introduced himself as “a skinny kid with a funny name.” Sometimes, he sounds like a president from an earlier, more historically literate era, as when he situates his campaign in a tradition that includes the American Revolution, the abolitionists, and the emergence of the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and other social struggles. But only rarely, if ever, does he use the familiar freeze-dried phrases that most current politicians favor. To borrow a phrase from the UAW, the “domestic content” of his speeches is unusually high.
That’s only one of many reasons why it’s so silly to accuse Obama of plagiarism because he used some of the same phrases as his friend and ally, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (who, I should add, was helpful to me when he was assistant attorney general for civil rights at the same time I was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton). If plagiarism is borrowing rhetoric without permission, Patrick most likely is happy to have Obama sound similar notes, such as hope and inspiration being more than “just words.” Even if Obama and Patrick didn’t know each other, they might use some of the same phrases because similar public figures frequently draw on common streams of public rhetoric. For instance, labor leaders often echo Walter Reuther or A. Philip Randolph; civil rights leaders draw upon the same scriptural passages and historical sources; and conservative Republicans repeatedly invoke Ronald Reagan. Similarly, John Edwards borrowed a rhetorical technique from his campaign manager, fellow populist and former Michigan congressman, David Bonior: His litany would begin “Somewhere in America,” and then he’d describe a social or economic injustice, such as a worker losing his job and his family’s health insurance. While Politico ran a story about this, it is hardly unusual for a candidate to share a rhetorical technique with his leading adviser.
After all, if there is one sentence from Scripture that is literally true, it is this line from Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the Sun.” To be condemned as plagiarism, a political speech needs to be grievously offensive--using lots of distinctive but little-known material from another source without attributing it to that speaker or receiving his or her permission. For instance, in 1987, Joe Biden once used, without attribution, a speech by the British Labor Party Leader Neil Kinnock, in which Kinnock credited social programs with the fact that he was the first in his family to have attended college. By borrowing the speech and inserting his own name, Biden suggested that the men in his family had been coal miners when, in fact, as Maureen Dowd dryly noted, his father had been an auto dealer. (In fairness, Biden had quoted Kinnock when he had given the speech on other occasions.) Does what Obama did come close to what Biden did? Absolutely not. Next scandal, please.