Schneider: How I (inadvertently) helped Joe Biden ruin his first White House run

Schneider: How I (inadvertently) helped Joe Biden ruin his first White House run
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The first time Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Sanders to call on 2020 Democrats to reject money from drug, health insurance industries Harris tops Biden in California 2020 poll MORE ran for president was in 1987, more than 20 years before he became vice president. I was the person who gave Biden a copy of the Neil Kinnock videotape that he later used, sometimes without attribution, in his campaign speeches that year.

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I had just covered the 1987 British general election. Kinnock, the Labour Party leader, was a brilliant orator. Academy award-winning filmmaker Hugh Hudson (“Chariots of Fire”) had produced a party political broadcast about Kinnock's life that created a sensation in the U.K. During a British political campaign, the major political parties are given free television time. Each party has to make ten-minute videos to fill the time every evening. Kinnock's video remains the most powerful political broadcast I have ever seen. I witnessed that broadcast move Conservative Party audiences to tears. (In the video, Kinnock's parents are shown wearing standard issue National Health Service eyeglasses. It was an image that connected with British audiences immediately.) I asked a British television producer to make me a copy of the ad so I could share it with friends in the United States.

When I returned to the U.S., I discovered that the British tape was incompatible with U.S. videotape specifications and had to be transferred to a different format. I took it to a political consultant who happened to be working for another 1988 Democratic presidential candidate, Richard Gephardt. The consultant transferred the tape and kept a copy. Why not? It was a public document. But one that few Americans had seen.

I was, and still am, an admirer of Joe Biden. I had interviewed him at length for an Atlantic magazine article on the 1988 campaign. Biden invited me to lunch and asked me if I would bring the Kinnock videotape. (Biden's campaign consultant, the late Patrick Caddell, told Biden that I had the tape.) Biden asked me if he, too, could make a copy of it. For the record, I also showed the ad to Arkansas Gov. Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonMore adult Twitter users follow Obama than Trump: survey Pro-impeachment Democrats wary of Al Green's floor vote push Marching toward a debt crisis MORE, who did not run for president in 1988.

A few months later, I was attending an academic conference at an inn deep in the French countryside.  The innkeeper knocked on my door late one night and told me I had a telephone call from The New York Times.  It was political writer Maureen Dowd, who had tracked me down on an Alp. She asked me if I knew how Biden might have obtained a copy of the Kinnock videotape.  “Yes,” I replied. “I showed it to the senator, and he asked me if he could make a copy of it.”

Biden had lifted passages from Kinnock's dramatic story of his own life and that of his family. Sometimes Biden used Kinnock's words with attribution, sometimes not. Dowd had received an anonymous tape that showed Kinnock's speech and Biden's speech (without attribution to Kinnock) side by side. The result was a feeding frenzy in the press — Gary Hart had been driven out of the race just a few months earlier for sexual improprieties. It was a foolish thing for Biden to do, and he was forced to leave the 1988 race.

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I am happy to say it did not cause Biden permanent damage. The former vice president is a man of immense political talent, despite an occasional lapse in judgment. I was struck by how many voters seemed puzzled by the press frenzy over Biden's plagiarism. People in the street sometimes stopped me to ask about the story. Many of them said they were not certain what Biden did that was so bad. “He just stole words,” they said. “It wasn't like he stole something expensive like a car.”

I explained that Sen. Biden had actually appropriated someone else's life, depicting the struggles of Kinnock's family as those of his own. But it is certainly true that people who deal in words for a living — writers, academics, journalists — take plagiarism far more seriously than ordinary voters do.

The one loose end in the story was the identity of the person who sent Maureen Dowd the anonymous “attack video” showing the Kinnock and Biden speeches side by side. Some pointed fingers at Gephardt, who had access to the tape. The truth came out at the end of 1987, when candidate Michael Dukakis discovered that his campaign manager, John Sasso, had sent out blind copies of the attack tape. Dukakis fired Sasso to show his disapproval of “dirty tricks.” But how did Sasso get the Kinnock tape? He got it from my editor at The Atlantic, a mutual friend of both myself and Sasso who had asked me for a copy.

When the Sasso story broke, I was speaking to Phil Trounstine, a friend who was then the chief political correspondent of the San Jose Mercury News. “I don't know why Dukakis fired Sasso,” Trounstine said. “It seems to me all he was guilty of was spreading vicious truths.” It was a clever line, which I passed on — with attribution — to a New York Times editor. Imagine my surprise when the next day's Times had a lead editorial with the headline, “Spreading Vicious Truths.” The Times attributed the line to “a Washington wag.” I called the editor to remind him that the comment actually came from Trounstine. “Bill,” the editor replied with perfect Times hauteur, “there is no such thing as a San Jose wag.”

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).