Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Tarnishing the Hal-"O"?

Barack, Deval, geez, guys, just when white people finally figured out that not all black folks look alike, you want to show that we all sound alike? Thanks, guys, thanks alot.

So, Hillary Clinton accuses Barack Obama
of "plagiarism" because a lengthy passage of a recent speech was found to be very similar to one delivered by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick two years ago? First of all, this is not something that immediately helps Sen. Clinton. It won't suddenly move poll numbers her way in Wisconsin or anywhere else. She'll have to do that by herself.

That said, however, this is the first real unforced error of the Obama campaign for a couple of reasons.

Given that Obama and Patrick are old friends and longtime political allies (c'mon, if your name were Barack or Deval, wouldn't you seek out a pal with an equally unusual name?), this hardly qualifies as an example of Joe Biden's Neil Kinnocking-off a Brit Labour leader in 1988. Both men say they knew what was going on.

On the other hand, if this were a college situation -- say an essay question on a test -- both men might stand accused of "sharing answers." Not exactly plagiarism, but something that strikes people as just "not quite right." This isn't just a simple phrase or slogan -- like the Obama campaign accuses Clinton of swiping "turn the page" (ahem, a Bob Seger song) or "fired up and ready to go" (ditto, Pat Benatar, as Huffington Post's John Ridley has noted). Obama used a full paragraph and intellectual structure:

The passage in question from Obama's speech addressed the power of oratory, and he used it to rebut Clinton's oft-repeated charge that he is long on rhetoric and short on policy specifics.

"Don't tell me words don't matter," Obama told the Wisconsin audience. "'I have a dream' - just words? 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal' - just words? 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself' - just words? Just speeches?"

Patrick used similar language during his 2006 governor's race to push back on similar charges from his GOP opponent.

"'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal' - just words? Just words?" Patrick said. "'We have nothing to fear but fear itself' - just words? 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.' Just words? 'I have a dream' - just words?"
As they say in copyright law, this goes beyond "fair use."

But more than the technical aspect of borrowing words without attribution, given that this speech was about the fact that Obama's rhetoric is more than "just words," his campaign's response that this was just a phrase shared by friends -- "just words," in other words -- undercuts the very point Obama was trying to make in the first place: He was trying to say that words matter, have powerful meaning and the ability to inspire. But that is because of a certain vibrancy and originality that certain speeches have. The historical words that both men quoted had those factors. Obama, however, was ultimately borrowing "just word" that his friend had already uttered. The idea in the speech -- the power of original rhetoric -- has been punctured.

Another way this hurts Obama is in ways that no politician wants -- it starts the press looking at the campaign organization itself. One reason this happened is that Obama and Patrick share a consultant, David Axelrod. Axelrod may welll have written Patrick's speech. Obama has been very lucky so far in making himself the nexus of the campaign --whereas Hillary has had to deal with the roles of surrogates from her husband to her former campaign manager and others. The fact that there might be more scrutiny on Axelrod makes the Obama campaign look, like, well a political campaign, rather than some amazing "movement" sweeping the country.

Whether the word borrowing has legs remains to be seen, but this certainly dings the halo that had been previously placed on St. Obama.

UPDATE: Marc Ambinder defends Obama's use of Patrick's language:
The best speakers tend to appropriate and expand; Obama's speeches pay tribute to the entire Kennedy family (and to the Sorensenian/Shrumian influences on their rhetoric); to Martin Luther King and to Barbara Jordan, ("Are we to be one people bound together by common spirit, sharing in a common endeavor; or will we become a divided nation?"), to Calvinist preachers; to
Jesse Jackson, to Cicero and Aristotle.
Nonetheless, Obama's speeches are more original, more authorial, more persuasive than any of his competitors.

Not sure if we want to go there, Marc.

Arguably, at one point, it would have been said that Martin Luther King's speeches were "more original, more authorial, more persuasive than any of his competitors."
Yet, twenty years after his death, as his papers were being examined, credible charges of intellectual plagiarism were raised. In the large picture, that doesn't diminish his greatness, but it remains a part of his history. Ambinder might not want to lump Obama into that sphere.

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