Working in a word mine

Joe Biden addresses the Democratic convention tonight as Barack Obama’s running mate. Senator Biden’s 1988 candidacy for the Democratic nomination collapsed as the result of a plagiarism scandal on which few observers have reflected since his selection. Rutgers history professor David Greenberg was the villain of my Standard column “Wielding the hatchet” as well as my subsequent post “Professor Greenberg regrets,” but he does a good job recounting Biden’s plagiarism fiasco in “The write stuff?” Greenberg recalls:

Biden’s downfall began when his aides alerted him to a videotape of the British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, who had run unsuccessfully against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The tape showed Kinnock delivering a powerful speech about his rise from humble roots. Taken by the performance, Biden adapted it for his own stump speech. Biden, after all, was the son of a car salesman, a working-class kid made good. Kinnock’s material fit with the story he was trying to sell.

At first Biden would credit Kinnock when he quoted him. But at some point he failed to offer the attribution. Biden maintained that he lapsed only once—at a debate at the Iowa State Fair, on Aug. 23, when cameras recorded it—but Maureen Dowd of the New York Times reported two incidents of nonattribution, and no one kept track exactly of every time Biden used the Kinnock bit. (Click here for examples of Biden’s lifting.) What is certain is that Biden didn’t simply borrow the sort of boilerplate that counts as common currency in political discourse—phrases like “fighting for working families.” What he borrowed was Kinnock’s life.

Biden lifted Kinnock’s precise turns of phrase and his sequences of ideas—a degree of plagiarism that would qualify any student for failure, if not expulsion from school. But the even greater sin was to borrow biographical facts from Kinnock that, although true about Kinnock, didn’t apply to Biden. Unlike Kinnock, Biden wasn’t the first person in his family history to attend college, as he asserted; nor were his ancestors coal miners, as he claimed when he used Kinnock’s words. Once exposed, Biden’s campaign team managed to come up with a great-grandfather who had been a mining engineer, but he hardly fit the candidate’s description of one who “would come up [from the mines] after 12 hours and play football.” At any rate, Biden had delivered his offending remarks with an introduction that clearly implied he had come up with them himself and that they pertained to his own life.

Greenberg comments:

The sheer number and extent of Biden’s fibs, distortions, and plagiarisms struck many observers at the time as worrisome, to say the least. While a media feeding frenzy (a term popularized in the 1988 campaign) always creates an unseemly air of hysteria, Biden deserved the scrutiny he received. Quitting the race was the right thing to do.

Greenberg then asks how much should Biden’s past behavior matter. “In and of itself,” he asserts, “the plagiarism episode shouldn’t automatically disqualify Biden from regaining favor and credibility, especially if in the intervening two decades he’s not done more of the same, as seems to be the case.” Greenberg nevertheless leaves open the possibility that the episode may be indicative of a man with a deeply troubled soul.

Jack Shafer also revisited Biden’s weird appropriation of the life of Neil Kinnock in “The wacky plagiarism of Joe Biden.” Shafer considers the forethought that went into Biden’s theft:

The only practical explanation for Biden’s plagiarism is he guessed that being Kinnock on the stump would be more compelling for his audience than merely citing him. And he was probably right. Anecdotes about how a British politician made a success of himself thanks to Labor Party policies would hardly encourage an American voter to pull the lever for Joe Biden. Biden plagiarized because, like most plagiarists, he was unsatisfied with his own, honest material and decided that the payoff was worth the risk.

Like Greenberg, Shafer thinks it likely that the episode is significant:

The Biden episode merits revisiting because as acts of plagiarism go, it was spectacular, and because it points to other dicey chapters in his life. To know Biden in full, you must appreciate his parts.

In light of the previous incident of egregious plagiarism that had caused Biden to fail a first-year law school course, Shafer concludes:

If you give Biden the benefit of the doubt—and I don’t—you’d expect that such a calamitous “mistake” from his youth would have seared into his mind the importance of keeping his mitts off of other people’s words. That it didn’t speaks terabytes about his character.

How did Biden survive this disgraceful episode? I don’t have the answer. I am quite sure that it helps to be a Democrat, in more ways than one. As Greenberg observes, “[t]he incidents of plagiarism and fabrication that forced Joe Biden to quit the 1988 presidential race have drawn little comment[.]” Biden’s survival may be part of the phenomenon that Paul Mirengoff considered in “The cheating heart of the Democratic Party.” Nevertheless, as Greenberg and Shafer argue, Biden’s past plagiarism warrants a close second look now that Biden stands before us as a candidate for the office that would place him “a heartbeat away.”

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