I guess it’s necessary to call this a case of plagiarism, but it’s really something sillier than that — and yet deeper and more disturbing.
In announcing her candidacy for the Repub 2000 presidential nomination, Elizabeth Dole said:
“I am Mary and John Hanford’s daughter. I was raised to believe that there are no limits to individual achievement and no excuses to justify indifference. From an early age, I was taught that success is measured not in material accumulations, but in service to others. I was encouraged to join causes larger than myself, to pursue positive change through a sense of mission, and to stand up for what I believe.”
Hardly an amazing triumph of rhetoric, and let’s bear in mind that it was surely written with at least the help of speechwriters and/or “messaging” specialists.
Until it was removed in the last few days, the campaign website of Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass, says, on behalf of Brown and speaking in the first person:
“I was raised to believe that there are no limits to individual achievement and no excuses to justify indifference. From an early age, I was taught that success is measured not in material accumulations, but in service to others. I was encouraged to join causes larger than myself, to pursue positive change through a sense of mission, and to stand up for what I believe.”
Brown stopped short of naming Elizabeth Dole’s parents or claiming to have been raised by them.
American Bridge 21st Century, a SuperPAC operating on behalf of Dem candidates generally, somehow (it would be fun to know how that came about) discovered the plagiarism, brought it to the attention of the Boston Globe. The Brown operation immediately removed the stolen language, saying it was a “staff level oversight.”
I don’t doubt that at all. I am sure that, however happily American Bridge has succeeded in embarrassing Brown, they have not uncovered a massive plagiarism ring with Scott Brown at its head. It is completely believable to me that Brown had no idea that his staff had lifted verbatim Elizabeth Dole’s upbringing.
What’s deeper and more disturbing about the incident (to plagiarize myself, from the first paragraph of this post) is that it is completely normal — in the current hideously phony U.S. political culture, as evolved — for personal-sounding statements like these to go out to the public and to media attributed to someone who never said them and may not even know they are going out.
It is the stuff of the daily flood of press releases, put out by every senator’s staff and in the name of every candidate who is able to afford a p.r. staff. The typical press release is written, by the staff, in the form of a news story. And in the middle there will usually occur a quotation, attributed to the senator, as if he has been interviewed by his staff, and as if the perfect-sounding quote was actually spoken by the senator or the candidate or the CEO or whomever. I’m sure that in many cases the senator has not only never spoken the quoted words but is barely aware that the press release has been issued.
It is, of course, even a bit more embarrassing when, as in this case, the quoted words are not only plagiarized but purport to be a deeply personal statement of how the senator’s parents raised him. But really, it’s only slightly more embarrassing.
Lincoln at Cooper Union
Allow me, in closing, to briefly go all Lincoln on you. In February of 1860 — the same year that he would win both the Repub nomination and the presidency itself — Abraham Lincoln made his first-ever trip to New York to give a speech, at the Cooper Union, that Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer has called “the speech that made Lincoln president.”
I won’t go deep on the tale here of what he said or why it may have figured so largely in his nomination and election. But what I recall from reading Holzer’s book-length account is Lincoln did all the research and all the writing himself. The Cooper Union speech relied heavily on historical research on what the framers of the Constitution had thought about whether the federal government had the power — not to abolish slavery in the states, which it clearly did not have — but to ban slavery from the western territories under direct federal administration.
In the months between when he accepted the invitation to give the speech and his trip to New York, Lincoln spent countless hours away from his law office, at the Illinois state library, researching the history of the framers — one by one — so that he could divulge at the Cooper Union what their post-Constitutional Convention lives revealed about the question.
He researched it himself, he wrote it himself, he delivered it, he even went to a friendly New York newspaper to proofread a transcript of the speech that was being published. (Imagine a culture in which that entire speech would be published.)
Okay, so Scott Brown is no Lincoln. He can’t even find the time to write, or even to proofread, words that are being published that purport to describe how his parents raised him. But he’s not unusual. That’s just how things work nowadays. And so when it turns out that the unnamed staff person to whom fell the task of constructing a phony “autobiographical” passage for a website, the senator, or the candidate, or the whoever, can actually truthfully say that he had no idea such a passage even appeared on his website.
Sorry. I went a litle nuts there, especially with the Lincoln stuff. We really wouldn’t want our elected officials to take the time from all their other activities to write their own speeches would we?