Monday, August 25, 2008

Joe Biden and Plagiarism

SINCE ITS INCEPTION, TWR has taken a keen interest in the intersection of politics and plagiarism. Not long ago, we posted on accusations of plagiarism against Barack Obama by Hillary Clinton, and we also wrote about plagiarism and the memoir Love and Consequences. Now, plagiarism and politics are back in the news a la Joe Biden.

As most readers will remember, Senator Biden was accused of plagiarism in 1988 in the middle of his first bid for president. The charges of word theft came (first and loudest) from Maureen Dowd, who proved that he lifted portions of a speech from the labor leader Neil Kinnock and passed them off as his own.

Today in Slate, Jack Shafer, goes one step further, claiming that Biden didn't just pilfer Kinnock, but became Kinnock, making the transgression even more egregious. To illustrate, I plagiarize Shafer himself:

In his closing remarks at an Aug. 23, 1987, debate at the Iowa County Fair, Biden said:

I started thinking as I was coming over here, why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university?

Biden then gestured to his wife and continued:

Why is it that my wife who is sitting out there in the audience is the first in her family to ever go to college? Is it because our fathers and mothers were not bright? Is it because I'm the first Biden in a thousand generations to get a college and a graduate degree that I was smarter than the rest?

But, as Dowd first showed, what was biographically accurate for Kinnock was invention for Biden. So, not only did Biden (or his writers) steal words, they stole events and identity.

As someone who teaches and writes about plagiarism and the ethics of borrowing and stealing, as one who both borrows and steals, and as someone who has given many talks several days in a row, I can sympathize with Biden and his speechwriters. Shafer correctly notes that reporters at the event where Biden spoke acknowledged he "had repeatedly cited Kinnock as the source before abducting the Kinnock persona." But, to Shafer, this doesn't exonerate Biden--it just makes him bizarre.

To me, who often juggles dozens of sources, authors, and voices, when presenting a paper or writing a scholarly article, it can be difficult to keep everything straight. If you think this is an excuse, just ask Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose sloppy note taking lead to some instances of plagiarism in her 2001 book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.

In general, plagiarism reveals either laziness or a lack of imagination. The practice of stealing someone else's intellectual work and passing it off as your own, though, can also point to questionable professional ethics. The question is, then, does Senator Biden's past dalliance with plagiarism, mean that his ethics are suspect?

But, maybe there is even another question.

How big of a transgression is plagiarism? Does it show the same sort of bad judgment as sleeping with a filmmaker while you're wife's recovering from cancer? Taking illegal campaign contributions? Misleading the public about weapons of mass destruction?

In my mind, Biden's plagiarism says less about him than it does about us. If it mattered to us, we'd punish him and Goodwin and others more than we do. But, in a culture of downloads and sampling, winning and losing, authorship and presentership, we have made a cultural decision that plagiarism is a minor offense. Because of that, it has yet to be determined if this will be a major problem.


  1. It wasn't just Kinnock. Biden was also stealing long passages from RFK without attribution. His reputation as a smooth orator was a lie. Dowd with her sources revealed him as a fraud. Read examples on my blog.

  2. Wow, I love the weirdness of the Dowd Report. So fun!