On Tuesday night, Donald Trump Jr. cleared the low bar set by his stepmother: If his speech were a term paper, he wouldn’t have been expelled. But he managed to spark a minor controversy nonetheless. Some of his best lines appeared to be copied from articles by the conservative writer F.H. Buckley.
In the end, it turned out Buckley himself was the one who did the copying. He helped write the speech. The moment the story broke, he took to Twitter to explain. “It wasn’t stealing,” he said.
Fair enough. But it was definitely something. Since leaving the White House six months ago, I’ve published a few articles. I’ve also been paid to write a few speeches. It never would have occurred to me to copy from column A and paste into column B. It’s simply not done. The former Carter speechwriter and Atlantic national correspondent James Fallows said the same thing. So did my former Obama White House colleague Jon Lovett. I know plenty of freelance speechwriters. I have yet to hear one say that borrowing from one’s own columns is par for the course. This decision was not nearly as bad as Melania’s. This was not outright plagiarism. But it came close to, and possibly crossed, an ethical line.
Trump Jr.’s defenders insist they have nothing to defend. They point out that any politician who hires a speechwriter uses another person’s words. They’re right, in a sense. Ghostwriting is a gray area, held to standards somewhere between the strict ones of journalism and the practically non-existent ones of, say, dinner party chat. But that’s precisely the point. With no official code of conduct, or threat of being disbarred, speechwriters are governed by norms rather than bylaws. One of those norms is that writers try to come up with original ideas. If a writer has a really juicy line about the middle class, she can publish it under her own name for less money, or put in a speech for more money. Not both.