Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Obama: Plagiarist?

The 2008 race gets stranger and stranger. Now the Clinton camp has accused Barack Obama of plagiarism. This is a big deal, not only because of the power of that word but because of the sign it portends of just how ugly this race may become.

The allegations stem from speeches given by Obama that, in part, respond to Hillary Clinton's claim that he is an empty orator: long on flourish, short on substance. Just last night I caught one example of that strategy in a speech delivered by Clinton to supporters in Wisconsin, dismissing Obama with a classic attack: "There's a difference between speeches and solutions, between talk and action."

Immediately I thought back to Plato's Gorgias, a foundational assault on "mere rhetoric" that has been cribbed by word or implication for almost 24 centuries. In that dialogue, Plato's version of Socrates compares the oratorical teachings of the Sophists to the gastronomic productions of chefs. Either the teacher of speech or the cooker of a meal may concoct an effect that is delightsome, says Socrates, but their products often bring harm, both to the human body and the body politic.

I can't say I was surprised to find that Clinton, facing a steep climb out of her current pit of political despair, turned to that well-worn rebuke when viewing the popular clamor of Obama. Sure, he gives a better stump speech, she reasons. But his speeches are like a tasty dessert: indulgent and fattening.

And now they're even worse, she says. They're plagiarized.

This new attack is trenchant to me, as it should be to anyone who writes for a living. In my line of work, both as an academic and (occasional) freelance author, proper attribution is more than the accurate use of quotation marks. Giving credit where credit is due is an immovable rock upon which any serious writer builds a lifetime of work. As a professor, I have severely penalized students for gross failures of attribution, and I have forwarded their names to our academic integrity office, even when they assured me that they didn't intend to plagiarize. From the first meeting of every class I teach, students learn that copy/pasting a passage written by another person without citing authorship, even after making a few word changes, is a grave academic sin.

I therefore respond to Clinton's claims that Obama is a plagiarist with real concern.

Consider first the irony of the attack, that Obama lifted an argument from Deval Patrick's 2006 rejoinder to opponents who claimed that the candidate for Massachusetts governor offered "just words." Finding that Obama employed phrases that were substantially similar to Patrick's speech, the Clinton campaign cleverly advances the claim that her opponent offers nothing more than words while simultaneously arguing that the authorship of words matters.

More importantly, consider that Obama is himself an academic, a former lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. He understands the rules of proper citation, doesn't he? This question calls for us to consider whether we should distinguish between standards of plagiarism in academic and political spheres. After all, while academic plagiarism is generally a matter of bright lines -- "Did you copy that? Yes. Did you cite it? No. Congratulations, you plagiarized." -- parsing out the difference between a politician's common motif, intentional homage, inadvertent error, and outright theft is much more complex.

After all, the political speech as a genre (composed of many subgenres) is typically not even written by the speaker. Audiences presume that some anonymous speechwriter crafted those words. Yet when we recall a potent turn of phrase such as "a thousand points of light" uttered by George H.W. Bush, we find no public outcry that the president failed to cite Peggy Noonan in his speech. Moreover, political speeches typically borrow phrases from previous orations in bids to bolster the ethos of their presenters. Thus, when we hear some politician utter that immortal evocation of America as a "shining city on a hill" we don't necessarily expect a citation of Ronald Reagan or John Winthrop or even the Bible. Enthymematically the reference calls for us to relate that passage to our own reservoir of references, however shallow. When we can connect the phrase to deeper currents of thought, it resonates with us all the more.

Even so, we know a line that cannot be crossed. Joe Biden tripped over that line in 1988 when he borrowed a bit too much from a speech by Neil Kinnock without offering attribution. Apparently, Biden had cited Kinnock in previous speeches numerous times before. But he forgot once when a videotape was rolling, and that marked the end of his presidential bid. What killed his campaign, though, was more than the one mistake. Oppo-squads dug into Biden's other speeches and college records and found a pattern: plagiarism in law school and overstatement in speeches thereafter. It was that pattern, I think, that did him in, that and the fact that Biden just manages to annoy people after a while.

So, where does this leave Obama?

As an academic, I find plagiarism to be reprehensible. As an observer of political discourse, though, I confess to being less dogmatic. Perhaps the question turns on the issue of claimed ownership. When a student signs her name to a course paper, she is testifying that all materials not otherwise cited therein are hers. Since she is being evaluated on the originality of her writing, the student ought to be held to a high and exacting standard. But when a candidate presents a political speech, she is not necessarily its author, any more than she is the author of every position statement advanced by her campaign. The political speech is inevitably a collaboration, both between the candidate and her staff and between the candidate and the chain of ideas she seeks to engage. Thus we generally do not condemn a politician for failure to adhere to the strictest academic standards. For that reason, I do not condemn Barack Obama for borrowing an argument from Deval Patrick any more than I condemn Hillary Clinton for borrowing some of her best lines from Bill Clinton (and from Barack Obama from time to time).

That being said, the fact remains: Obama should have known better. While we tolerate a political speaker's weaving together of commonly used phrases, aphorisms, and policy positions without the strictures of formal attribution, and while we are hardly surprised to find that politicians use speechwriters, we ought to expect a citation of authorship for unique and non-"public domain" phrases that are not original to the speaker or the speaker's staff. In Obama's case, it would simply have been a matter of the candidate saying, "As my friend Deval Patrick said..." Supposedly he did so most of the time. But he did not attribute his words to Patrick every time. Having not done so, the candidate opens himself up to charges against his credibility. No matter how small the error, Obama's ethos is tainted. It may not be fair, especially since Obama is known for writing most of his own stuff. It may simply reflect the desperation of the Clinton campaign seeking to savage a vexing opponent. But the damage is done.

To me, whether writing an academic paper or a political speech, it's always best to err on the side of too much attribution. I've learned this truth the hard way. When I was in school, I was once asked if I had read a book. Seeking to impress my audience, I replied that I had, even though I'd merely skimmed it. I didn't sign my name to some document, but I gave my word. And my word wasn't good. To my great fortune, I was caught in my deception and rightly rebuked. I paid a high price for that mistake and I learned an indelible lesson that I try to pass on to my students: there are no little lies when the authorship of ideas is at stake. For Obama's sake, I hope he steps in front of this issue, that he admits that he made a silly mistake and promises not to commit similar errors in the future. Thus far his response to this issue has been partial at best and downright smug; he needs to clarify his response to the moral issue that has been raised. Otherwise Obama may learn the hard way: Losing your credibility is too high a price to pay for a moment of expediency.


Suzanne said...

Andy, your post was absolutely fascinating. Sadly, I have not been following the 2008 primaries as dutifully as I should be, but I was intrigued to read your blog. I had no idea that the Clintons have accused Obama of plagiarism, and I feel very much as you do on the topic. As a student of yours, I understood the importance of citing your work, just as you stated, but I do believe that as a politician those standards shouldn’t be quite as high. In public rhetoric, I feel that when the politician mentions a popular speech, the citation isn’t necessary. Take the “I have a Dream” line for example. Politicians, and others making speeches use this line fairly regularly, yet they seldom precede it with a citation linking it to MLK Jr. Although I am not certain what point I am trying to make – which is just making me want to go back and get my Masters that much more – I feel that the Clintons are way out of their league and of all things to criticize a opponent for, plagiarism should not be one. Thanks for getting me thinking Andy – I’ll be sure to keep a much closer eye on the primaries. I almost feel like I should start editing this response, but since I am at work, and probably should be focused on other things, I ask your forgiveness for any typographical and grammatical errors you may find! I miss your classes, their intellectual discussions and your fabulous historical and literary references. Have a great week!
My best, Suzanne Diggins

Andrew Wood said...

Suzanne, it's so nice to hear from you! You make a strong point with your reference to King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Beyond his obvious skills as a speaker, much of the power of that address flowed from King's weaving together of multiple orations and writings in a manner akin to musical "sampling." Indeed, it's hard to imagine that speech being so potent if it had included APA in-text citations!

Drop by the ol' blog any time, Suzanne!

Zaki said...

Great post, Andy. You summed up a lot of my own thoughts on this subject as I've discussed with my students since yesterday when the story broke.

Andrew Wood said...

Zaki, thanks for your kind reply. I imagine those conversations with your students were stimulating (at least to those following the race).

Zack said...


Reading your thoughts on plagiarism made me more aware of its importance. Your wonderful delineation between a political speech and academic writing is deep and accurate. The indictment of Obama is not as harsh as it would be had it been in a different set of circumstances. I think you are correct in stating that this might be a sign of Clinton's desperation but I also see this as a huge opportunity for Obama. Reading your post reminded me of the Nixon Checkers speech or of the numerous instances that democrats tried to point out the horrid rhetorician that is our current president. I would not be a bit surprised that if Obama addresses this properly that it will actually humanize him and allow people to relate to him more. This is just another example(possibly) of Clinton's inability to relate the general public.

Zack Lampitok

PS hope the family is doing well, mine is.

Andrew Wood said...

Zack! It's been a while since I've heard from you. I really appreciate your feedback, particularly your connection to the Nixon years. I agree with you, ultimately, that Obama can use this issue as a "teaching" and "humanizing" moment.

Matt said...

Andy, what a cogent and thoughtful reflection. I've be greatly disturbed by these accusations as they have been relayed by the media, and I thank you for helping me to see the faults on both sides of this controversy. I only wish our traditional media outlets would take the time to examine situations such as this with as much careful deliberation as you have here.

Kind regards, Matt

Andrew Wood said...

Matt, praise from you is high praise indeed! Thanks.

Anne Marie said...

Andy-well said. I think this speaks to a larger issue of authenticity in our orators. Obama has been borrowing from JFK throughout his campaign, which has largely been acceptable. However, taking wholesale text from another speech without attribution is an issue. The questions that remains for me is: what about when politicians "borrow" policy ideas from one another. Clinton's campaign has argued that Obama's economic policies were first proposed by Clinton. Great blog! I've been reading, and will try to comment more. AMT

Andrew Wood said...

Yep, you raise a tough issue, Anne Marie. It's my understanding that one cannot copyright or trademark or otherwise own an idea. One can, however, restrict usage and distribution of an expression of an idea. So, if Clinton says we should a $1,000 tax break to everyone making less than 50K - and then Obama offers the same plan - there is no technical "theft" at work. It's cheesy, maybe, but it's legal. But if Clinton employs an original metaphor to convey her plan, Obama ought to cite Clinton's usage before adopting it for his own purpose.

Then there's the usage of phrases that enter the "public domain." Yes, the King estate may "own" speeches made by MLK, but in practical terms, a reference to "I have a dream" has entered the common lexicon as much as "Xerox," as in: "I'm going to Xerox that document," even when using another kind of photocopier (and you know the folks at Xerox hate that). That's where political speeches get dicey. So little of what they say is remotely original, which, actually is just as serious an issue as this dust-up.

As usual, I am grateful for your feedback, Anne Marie. You bring so much to any discussion of speech ethics and practice.

Ron Johnson said...


Thank you for providing such an interesting and discerning discussion of this issue. I find it somewhat ironic that Obama has generated so much trouble by re-engineering Patrick's speech, which in itself borrows so heavily from phrases in the common lexicon. Therein lies the danger; Obama has frequently used phrases from famous speeches, but Patrick's "just words" has not attained the same recognition as King's "I have a dream." I am glad to see that Obama has admitted his mistake, but I don't think that Patrick's defense of Obama should entirely excuse him from paying attention to his words.

Best regards,

Andrew Wood said...

Thanks for your feedback, Ron. I agree with you that "recognition" contributes a major component of an expression's placement (or lack of placement) in the public domain. All the more reason why I appreciate those "bright lines" of the academy!