On plagiarism

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The "plagiarism" flap over Barack Obama is bogus and overstated. It makes me think worse about whoever is pushing this complaint, rather than about Obama himself.

Conceivably Obama would have been wiser to introduce his recent discourse on the role of "hope" by saying, "As my friend the governor of Massachusetts has often pointed out...." But please: A candidate on the stump utters tens of thousands of words every single day. Few of those can be "original" in any deep sense. For many of the words, even the most brilliant candidate relies on help from people whose job is to think of newer and better ways to make the campaign's point.* We should be suspicious of candidates who don't seek this kind of help; it suggests that they are naive about the tradeoffs, triage, and delegation necessary to run a campaign well, let alone an Administration.

The classic campaign stump speech, in its low-rent version, is a memorized mish-mash of things the candidate has already said. In its high-rent version, it's an improvised and steadily evolving mish-mash of things the candidate has already said -- but slightly retuned with each delivery, to reflect the news and the location and the latest charge and countercharge. It's also slightly altered or enriched with each delivery, to include the latest anecdote or aphorism or snappy phrase or moving line that the candidate, or someone around him, has come across that might help push the campaign's main theme. Unless a candidate is a total robot, giving the very same speech time after time, he or she is inevitably grabbing whatever idea, illustration, or phrase is at hand. Again, not to do this is to suggest that a presidential candidate is not quite ready for the job.

Moreover, on the specific Patrick/Obama point at issue: it's not as if no one had thought of this argument (about hope and inspiration), or these examples -- FDR, JFK, MLK Jr -- before Deval Patrick uttered them. Speechwriters could hardly exist without this theme or these illustrations!

Talk about American resolve in the dark days, and you're going to talk about Lincoln and FDR -- plus George Washington at Valley Forge, if you have a little more time to fill. Talk about American national ambition, and you're going to talk about the westward movement across the frontier and the Apollo Project's race to the moon. Talk about American opportunity, and you're going to talk about the GI Bill. Talk about American resolve and determination, and you're going to talk about Pearl Harbor and the fall of the Soviet regime. Talk about the power of ideas, and... [take the home speechwriter-aptitude test! Fill in this blank. One possible answer explained here.]

The list goes on and leads to this: Talk about hope and inspiration, and you are going to use the examples both Patrick and Obama used -- and that I, as just one political speechwriter among legions, have used many times.

A plagiarism charge stings when it underscores the idea that the plagiarist is trying to mask some deficiency: The D student looks over the A student's shoulder to copy during a test. Does any sane person actually think that Barack Obama is deficient in expressing himself? His first book was a "real" book, of a quality most "real" writers would be proud to have matched. (The second one was more of a campaign book, and less in his own voice.) To the extent this flurry is designed to introduce subliminal concerns -- and, let's face it, concerns tied to racial stereotypes -- that Obama is not quite deserving intellectually, a flim-flam man, it really is contemptible.

I respect and admire Joe Biden, but his "similar" case in 1988 was completely different, and actually bad. On the stump he was telling someone else's personal story -- as it happened, Neil Kinnock's -- as if it were his own. That is not the kind of detail you just swap into and out of a stump speech to make it more powerful. Indeed, the mystery is how anyone could actually utter words -- "My daddy was a coal miner," "there I was, at Valley Forge" -- knowing them not to be true. And -- mentioning again that I respect and admire Biden -- the incident wounded him because in fact he had been a weak student in college and law school. Not, say, the president of the Harvard Law Review.

And it's different when people whose job is writing -- people who know very well that the exact phrasing of ideas is each writer's brand and property, and who have plenty of time, in private, to check and perfect the phrases on which they will be judged -- copy others' work. I'm a hawk on punishing them. But to think that this is anything like a candidate's constant search for ways to explain his message, in real time, is unrealistic and wrong. As someone has already said, in an interview or post somewhere whose insight I'm stealing, It's fine for the Hillary Clinton campaign to adopt "Fired up! Ready to go!" as its new motto, and it's fine for Barack Obama to use this way of explaining the importance of hope.

______
*(Disclosure -- or, if you choose, standing to speak: I was a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter during his general-election campaign in 1976 and then for two years in the White House.)

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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