Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Mass. Sen. Scott Brown is actually Elizabeth Dole

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?

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/13/2011 - 12:11 pm.

    I guess what we REALLY need to do, then, is infiltrate the staffs of all the politicians we don’t appreciate with minions that will, at the proper moment put out a barrage of press releases, mailings, and web site information that will torpedo that candidate’s electability just a day or two before the next election.

    How can we believe ANYTHING that any of these people say?

  2. Submitted by Ross Williams on 10/13/2011 - 12:17 pm.

    You do realize that speech writers are hardly something new. William Safire boasted of being the author of “nattering nabobs of negativism”. One of former University of Minnesota President Malcolm Moos’ claims to fame was as author of the phrase ‘military industrial complex” as Eisenhower’s speech writer.

    And its hardly limited to politics. Those letters from corporate Presidents are the work of the company public relations team. In fact, most of what you read in the newspaper is stuff from various PR firms.

    Does anyone really think the current editorial from the President of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce that is appearing in newspapers all over the state was written by the actual Chamber President, a plant manager at Blandin Paper Company? Of course not. It was written by their publilc affairs staff to be sent out over his name. No doubt he had to approve it, but he has a day job.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/13/2011 - 12:42 pm.

    Nicely done, Eric.

    “…We really wouldn’t want our elected officials to take the time from all their other activities to write their own speeches would we?”

    I would.

    What an interesting window it would provide into the intellectual life (or the lack thereof) of both officeholders and candidates of every party and persuasion. Citizens and voters might benefit substantially from what those speeches revealed.

    It almost goes without saying, given the Scott Brown example, that these people would not do their own research, and since that’s often far more time-consuming than the actual writing, perhaps they wouldn’t be pilloried for that. The rewrite process seems likely to also be something aided and abetted by knowledgeable staff people, so the result would be less genuine and off-the-cuff than I’d like personally. Still, it might be very useful and enlightening for the public – in addition to the various “debates” that have gone on, and that will continue until November, 2012 – what written-by-the-candidate statements might tell us about presidential hopefuls.

    And for those in academia, think of all the doctoral dissertations, increasingly focused on the trivial as they often are, that would have a whole new area of original documentation to which to refer in those footnotes. Suddenly, “governing philosophy” might once again be considered of importance to the general public, and not limited to the attention of those of us geeks who currently take at least occasional note of public policy and the rationales for it.

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/13/2011 - 01:16 pm.

    Of course, both the Dole and Brown staffs may have plagiarized from a third source (though a quick search didn’t turn up anything).

  5. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/13/2011 - 03:23 pm.

    The problem isn’t speech writers, it’s
    speech stealers.

  6. Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/13/2011 - 03:35 pm.

    I’ll settle for politicians with their own thoughts.

  7. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 10/13/2011 - 03:38 pm.

    Well, to complete the Scott Brown image, I see him dressed in a classic red dress suit, Elizabeth Dole attire…suit skirt cut short conservatively above the knees, with piano legs heeling their exposure below.

    Cross dressing, cross plagiarizing completes the image.

    I think I better rake those dead leaves out of my mind and go back to raking them out of my garden, eh?

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/13/2011 - 05:13 pm.

    The embarrassing for both Dole and Brown would be that they presented their life stories, in the prose style of a political hack. As a political hack myself, I was raised by parents who never got very far in life themselves, and were somewhat surprised that I have advanced as far as I have. From an early age, I was taught that success is pretty much determined by making a living, and that it’s very nice to have a decent set of material acquisitions. I was never encouraged to join causes either larger or smaller than myself, to avoid having a “mission in life” and that standing up for what I believe is pretty much a waste of time.

    Good thing I am not running for Senate in either Massachusetts or North Carolina.

  9. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/13/2011 - 05:14 pm.

    The only thing worse than plagiarizing is plagiarizing bad prose.

  10. Submitted by Max Hailperin on 10/14/2011 - 07:29 am.

    That Lincoln was sure something else. I remember how astonished I was, when reading the history of the Dakota conflict, to see his intensely personal involvement in deciding the fate of the captives held at Mankato.

    We rightly remember this incident as the largest mass execution in US history. And we rightly remember that even those who weren’t executed were inhumanely treated. But it is also worth reflecting on how many times more massive the execution would have been without Lincoln’s intervention.

    The mere sight of that long, long list of names, written in his own handwriting, with his own notes of what was to become of each individual, recalls an entirely different kind of presidency.

    By the way, this column is a perfect example of why I love Eric Black and MinnPost.

  11. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/14/2011 - 08:18 am.

    “… to recall what our country has done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return.”
    – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Memorial

    At least Scott Brown didn’t have the audacity to collect a Pulitzer prize for a book that was written by his speech writer (Ted Sorensen).

  12. Submitted by Larry Copes on 10/14/2011 - 08:48 am.

    I echo Max about Eric Black and MinnPost. Wow!

    And I do recall reading complete transcripts of Kennedy’s speeches in the newspaper. I don’t recall when that tradition stopped.

  13. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 10/14/2011 - 09:55 am.

    1: Does the Internet encourage Plagiarism; the borrowing of others words since copyright is not stamped on one’s narratives in the process?

    2:When a speaker quotes the Bible without crediting the source; chapter and verse…or even close-to-the-bone paraphrasing…whose being plagiarized…God himself or one of his ‘speech writers’? The One-From-On-High must be turning over in his grave at such abuse.

    3: The plagiarist is a rogue word abuser and should be hung from the nearest masthead.

Leave a Reply