When Plagiarism Isn't Plagiarism

Our political conversation is not subject to a copyright, thank goodness, and the controversy over whether Barack Obama borrowed a phrase or two from his friend, the governor of Massachusetts, is silly. (It was silly and unfair to Joe Biden in 1988, too. History, and John Sasso, have wronged Mr. Biden here.)

Using the standard that finds an objection in what Obama did, every politician owes residuals to the corps of political pollsters who created the library of platitudinous phrases that so often comprise the average stump speech. "In the end, it's about the children." "This election is about the future, not the past."

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.

The Clinton campaign seems to have a different motive. Obama, as Howard Fineman had said, occasionally seems to be "caught up in his own words" -- forgetting his mortality and ascending, briefly, to the heights of messiahdom . His appeal in such instances is very narrow.

By pointing the laser at Obama's words, and by pointing out how they aren't perfectly original, they are making an argument about the distinction between rhetoric and government. A benefit accrues to Clinton when the political conversation turns to whether Obama is real or not; that raises about questions about the substance of an Obama presidency, something the media has begun to, however gingerly, obsess over. (Does Obama privilege "style" over "substance," Matt Lauer asked this morning in his Today cold open.)

Having essentially conceded the argument that Obama is more inspirational than Clinton is, Clinton is asking, here, what, in the end, does inspiration (which is ephemeral and borrowable) have to do with solving problems?

Clinton might well (but would never) make the point that Deval Patrick's gubernatorial tenure has not been a smooth ride on I-93.