February 18, 2008

Is This Really Plagiarism? No

The New York Times makes a big deal about some similarities between elements in Barack Obama's speech and similar constructs in speeches given earlier by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick in 2006. While the wording appears too close for coincidence, one has to wonder how much anyone could vary the constructs in similar themes (via Memeorandum):

Senator Barack Obama adapted one of his signature arguments — that his oratory amounts to more than inspiring words — from speeches given by Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts during his 2006 campaign.

At a Democratic Party dinner Saturday in Wisconsin, Mr. Obama, of Illinois, responded to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who has criticized him for delivering smooth speeches but says they do not amount to solutions to the nation’s problems, by ticking through a string of historic references.

“Don’t tell me words don’t matter,” Mr. Obama said, to applause. “ ‘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?”

Mr. Patrick employed similar language during his 2006 governor’s race when his Republican rival, Kerry Healey, criticized him as offering lofty rhetoric over specifics. Mr. Patrick has endorsed Mr. Obama, and the two men are close friends.

“ ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ — just words? Just words?” Mr. Patrick said one month before his election. “ ‘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?”

After six paragraphs of drawing lines between the speeches, Jeff Zeleny then undermines the entire argument by reporting on how Obama got the theme in the first place. Patrick has counseled Obama on how to counter the experience argument, as Patrick had to face it in his race in 2006. Patrick put his speechwriters in touch with Obama's team to develop the same themes in his stump speeches after consultations last week.

That's a lot different than plagiarism. In fact, to quote Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, it "ain't the same [expletive] ballpark, it ain't the same league, it ain't even the same [expletive] sport." When Joe Biden lifted entire passages of British Labour leader Neil Kinnock's speeches and passed them off as his own -- and as James Joyner notes, even including Kinnock's personal anecdotes -- that's plagiarism. Biden was unethical and dishonest, while Patrick wanted Obama to make use of his constructs. Perhaps Obama could have referenced Patrick in the speech, but he wasn't quoting Patrick, and how many other ways could he have said the same thing?

Clearly, someone wants to rub a little of the gloss off of Obama's perceived honor and straightforward mien. And who might that be? Howard Wolfson -- one of Hillary Clinton's top aides:

Howard Wolfson, the Clinton campaign's communications director, today accused Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) of committing “plagiarism” in a speech in Milwaukee on Saturday night.

Wolfson made the explosive charge in an interview with Politico after suggesting as much in a conference call with reporters.

On the call, Wolfson said: “Sen. Obama is running on the strength of his rhetoric and the strength of his promises and, as we have seen in the last couple of days, he’s breaking his promises and his rhetoric isn’t his own.”

"When an author plagiarizes from another author there is damage done to two different parties. One is to the person he plagiarized from. The other is to the reader," said Wolfson.

Put simply, it's nonsense. It is, however, an indication of how desperate Hillary has become to derail Obama. The supposed victim, Patrick, has already issued a statement hotly criticizing Hillary's campaign for this attack. That should answer the question rather neatly, and call into question why Team Hillary would have launched this attack without securing the support of Patrick for the faux outrage.

Watch the backfire that comes out from this.


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