Biden campaign's plagiarism is a warning to all candidates: Watch your words

Biden campaign's plagiarism is a warning to all candidates: Watch your words
© Greg Nash

The headline (“Echoes of Biden's 1987 plagiarism scandal…”) must have horrified the former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate. In 1988, lifting one passage from a Neil Kinnock speech meant the end of Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump says he'll watch Democratic debate while en route to Japan 'because I have to' The Hill's Morning Report - Democratic debates: Miami nice or spice? 5 things to watch in the Democratic debates MORE’s presidential campaign at the time. You’d think he would have learned his lesson.

Instead, racing to release the candidate’s climate change plan this week, the Biden staff scrambled to clean up a rookie mistake from what should be the most experienced campaign around.

Biden appears to be taking ideas from other people and not giving credit,” said one climate change scholar. “You can't do that.”

ADVERTISEMENT

We agree.

Plagiarism allows speakers to pretend the eloquence of others is their own. It is absolutely unethical. The Biden staff knew that. They admitted it right away.

We’ve seen political plagiarism before, and not just with Biden. In 2008, Barack Obama took language from then-Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. A 2013 speech by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) lifted two paragraphs from Wikipedia. At the 2016 Republican Convention, Melania Trump uttered the exact words that then-first lady Michelle Obama said at the Democratic Convention a few weeks earlier.

That doesn’t mean plagiarism itself is more common. The technology to detect language theft has changed, though. In 1963 nobody noticed the similarity between the ending of Martin Luther King's “Dream” speech and Archibald Carey’s address at the 1952 Republican Convention. Now we would.

And muddying this issue are the preposterous denials we hear from campaigns. About Melania Trump’s speech, ex-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said, “93 percent of the speech is completely different than Michelle Obama’s.” He used to be a prosecutor. So is he saying that it is okay if you break into someone’s house but take only 7 percent of their belongings?

ADVERTISEMENT

American University, where we teach, leaves no doubt about what plagiarism is. “Plagiarism,” it warns, “may involve using someone else’s wording without using quotation marks — a distinctive name, a phrase, a sentence or an entire passage.” Yes, even one sentence. And the penalty in many schools can include expulsion. That may seem draconian. But should we ask less of presidential candidates than naive college freshmen? No.

Besides, we don’t need a citation for every fact. “It’s too clunky,” former Democratic aide and legendary fact-checker Gene Sperling tweeted, the day after the Biden story broke. That’s true. But word-for-word appropriation goes beyond clunkiness.

Luckily, even in the frenzy of campaigns, and as we have written, the solutions are relatively simple:

  1. Cite it. Every time you borrow language. Who thinks Obama’s listeners would have turned off if he’d added the words, “As Deval Patrick puts it,” to that passage? Even “I am not the first to say” insulates speakers from plagiarism attacks.

  2. Record it. Maintain a fully annotated copy of every speech or policy paper. That lets others check sources right away. And if reporters call, you don’t have to struggle to remember the source of your material.

  3. Google it. Students and teachers have the prodigiously rich plagiarism-detector, Turnitin. Opposition researchers and journalists use other services, some even free. Do what they do: Enter text into a search engine while you can still make a change.

  4. Own it. Instantly. Okay, that one seems hard, but it’s easier than it might seem. It doesn’t even mean throwing young campaign workers under the bus. It means recognizing the gravity of the ethical lapse — it’s not just careless but dishonest — and trusting voters to understand that humans make mistakes. Barack Obama still won. Rand Paul is still a senator. And this year, Joe Biden gets a second chance to become president.

In addition to statements of fact, there are a couple of exceptions where candidates don’t need to cite. First, old jokes, authors unknown. He slept like a baby, John McCain would say after his 2008 losing presidential bid: “I sleep two hours, wake up and cry.” He never said, “as the old joke goes” — and nobody accused him of plagiarism.

Same with clichés. “There’s work to do,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said recently about denuclearizing North Korea. A Google search brings up hundreds of millions of other examples of the same phrase, some by the authors of this piece. That’s a failure of imagination, not plagiarism.

Exceptions aside, politicians must — and can — do better.

Plagiarize,” sang satirist Tom Lehrer, decades ago, making fun of a mathematician who had appropriated the work of others. “Let no one else’s work evade your eyes.”

Funny. But the offense is too serious, the consequences of allowing it too dire, and the solutions too easy to expect less.

Politicians may not get caught every time. But better safe than sorry — as we are not the first to say.

Former White House speechwriters Bob Lehrman and Eric Schnure teach speech writing at American University and are co-authors of the soon-to-be-released second edition of “The Political Speechwriter’s Companion” (SAGE, 2019).