February 2008
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Day February 19, 2008

Deval Patrick, Political Speech, and Barack Obama

When juxtaposed to her slowly deflating campaign chances, the Clinton campaign’s attacks on Barack Obama for incorporating language used by his friend Deval Patrick makes perfect sense.  Democrats have a long history of responding to dicey primary prospects by firing torpedoes at one another.  Michael Dukakis successfully derailed Joe Biden’s 1988 campaign with accusations of plagiarism in a speech.  Clinton appears to be attempting a duplication of that feat. 

And it truly would, and should, be a "feat" to derail a popular political campaign with this particular attack.  Because "plagiarism" requires a higher bar than has been demonstrated here.  Sure, Obama did a riff, nearly word for word, from a speech of Deval Patrick’s.  As Deval Patrick has done, with speech language, from Obama even earlier.  As Biden did to Neil Kinnock.  As politicians have done from time immemorial.  As Patrick himself did, to the Founding Fathers and Martin Luther King.  For in none of these cases, did the politician in question start by claiming that any of these words were actually their own.  "Plagiarism" implies that such a claim has been made, and that the claimant is lying.  It implies that the speaking or writing is occurring in a context within one will be judged, and possibly rewarded, for being the actual author of a speech or some writing.

No such claim is occurring in most (if not all) political speech.  And the criteria we use for electing leaders doesn’t specify that their words must be their own.  This isn’t a final exam, and our country isn’t high school.  We don’t have a "plagiarism policy" in the Constitution, and candidates aren’t disqualified from office if they can’t "show their work" and demonstrate that they — and only they — wrote the words they deliver to us in stump speeches and debates. 

Clearly, on the other side of this coin, we voters often do want to assure ourselves that our chosen candidate can "pull their own weight" and isn’t an intellectually empty shell.  As, for example, some recent political leaders we could mention, but won’t.  Barack Obama has cleared this hurdle quite well enough in my mind, and apparently in the minds of an increasing fraction of primary voters. 

So I sincerely hope that Democratic voters in Ohio and Texas view the current flap over Deval Patrick’s speech for what it is:  a last-ditch effort by Senator Clinton to revive a campaign on the decline.  No further confirmation of her unsuitability as our nominee is needed than the sight of her striving to emulate Michael Dukakis in campaign victories — his "plagiarism" fueled defeat of Joe Biden.   Do we really want a Democratic nominee who takes Dukakis as their  example?