In the windy realm of political oratory, boosting words or cadence or even whole sentiments is nothing new. Did it stick, then, when the Clinton campaign invoked the P-word after Obama borrowed a few sentences from Gov. Deval Patrick? Copy that!
BARAK OBAMA: Don't tell me words don't matter. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. Just words? BOB GARFIELD: The oratorical stylings, ladies and gentlemen, of Barack Obama. He'll be here all week. Every week maybe for years, because largely on the strength of his rhetorical gifts and his ability to inspire audiences young and old, black and white, rich and poor, he has become the Democratic frontrunner in the race for the presidency – unless something should bring him suddenly down, like, say, a charge of plagiarism. [CLIP] DEVAL PATRICK: We hold these truths to be self-evident. All men are created equal. [APPLAUSE AND CHEERS] Just words! [APPLAUSE AND CHEERS] [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: That voice, of course, was not Obama but Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who had used the “just words” words in a speech 16 months before the senator. Patrick says he was not victimized because the phrasing was his suggestion for Obama to challenge charges of empty rhetoric, and, anyway, Obama had credited him for it in the past.
Furthermore, it’s a bit absurd when a politician must answer to charges that his speechwriters stole from another politician’s speechwriters, but not so absurd that it didn't torpedo Senator Joe Biden’s presidential aspirations in 1987 when he was caught claiming a British Parliamentarian’s anecdote as his own. And thus was the Hillary Clinton campaign ready at the torpedo bay. [CLIP] HILLARY CLINTON: You know, lifting whole passages from someone else’s speeches is not change you can believe in; it’s change you can xerox. And I just don't think – [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Xerox, nice line. I wonder who in the Clinton campaign came up with it? It’s not as though modern politicians spend a lot of time scribbling, Abraham Lincoln-like, on the back of envelopes to prepare for the Young Democrats of Waxahachie or whatever. They have people for that and have had for a long time. [CLIP] PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: In the teeth of the Great Depression, 1933, this was perhaps Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s most famous utterance. But he didn't write it. Historians attribute it to FDR advisor Louis Howe, who himself perhaps borrowed it from Henry David Thoreau, or the Duke of Wellington, or from 16th-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, or, as some have suggested, from an ad for a Washington, D.C. department store.
Now, listen to this familiar quotation. [CLIP] PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. [APPLAUSE AND CHEERS] [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: That was John F. Kennedy at his 1961 Inaugural, speaking the words that would define his presidency. But, according to Jerry Doolittle, a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, Kennedy advisor Ted Sorensen cribbed that idea from a 1916 address by Warren G. Harding, whose own people found it who knows where. JERRY DOOLITTLE: You know, it probably originally came from the Demonic Greek, I imagine, but, you know, speech is a long, kind of never-ending tapestry of what you say and what I say and what a million other people say. And, you know, once you start pulling at the thread in political oratory, you find that it’s all connected. BOB GARFIELD: Connected threads or no, in journalism, literature and scholarly writing, borrowing text unattributed is unequivocally a crime. ED WASSERMAN: The question is do those same norms apply to political speeches? And, you know, you'd have to be crazy to think that. BOB GARFIELD: Ethicist Ed Wasserman is a professor at Washington and Lee University. ED WASSERMAN: Political speechwriting is a collaboration among a number of people. If we were being honest about it, at the end of the State of the Union Address they'd roll the credits. BOB GARFIELD: Consider this immortal moment from President Ronald Reagan, the great communicator. [CLIP] [APPLAUSE] PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. [APPLAUSE AND CHEERS] [END CLIP] DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: That doesn't sound like a speech line. It really sounds like something spontaneous, the final anger of an anti-Communist like Reagan. After decades of frustration, he gets to tell the Soviet Union what he really thinks of them. BOB GARFIELD: Biographer Douglas Brinkley is a distinguished professor of history at Rice University. DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: But that line was penned by a man named Peter Robinson. The reason that we're not so focused on Peter Robinson is because Reagan’s utterance of it is what’s memorable. And that’s why presidents get the credit in the end. They have to put the entire credibility of the United States on the line when they speak, and the words that they say carry the power of America. BOB GARFIELD: Precisely. Political oratory, as Barack Obama correctly reminds us, is not just words. It is the convergence of text, of the underlying ideas, of performance and of the speaker’s own authority, not to mention place and time.
According to Brinkley, Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech for the 1963 March on Washington made no splash whatsoever when he delivered it in Detroit two months earlier. Yet on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he held the crowd – and the world – in his thrall, a quarter of a million mesmerized marchers blissfully uninterested in who wrote what when.
This gets to another peculiarity of political rhetoric – the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief. Ted Widmer, director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, is a scholar on presidential oratory. TED WIDMER: For the average audience member, the moment is everything and you think that this is the first time this speech has been given, and you might even think the speaker is speaking to you directly. And that is something the speaker wants you to feel. They want it to be as exciting a moment as possible. BOB GARFIELD: But it is for this very reason, Widmer believes, that Obama puts himself at risk by not being more scrupulous about the language and ideas he implicitly takes credit for. TED WIDMER: Democracy and liberty and freedom, there are only so many concepts out there and it’s hard to always think of new ways of talking about them. But when you get into long sentences and even paragraphs that have been lifted wholesale from another speech, then that becomes very dangerous. BOB GARFIELD: For one thing, the victimless crime isn't victimless at all if the audience feels hoodwinked, whereupon an eloquent, inspiring, fresh, original messenger of hope might begin looking like just another glib politician and wind up, like Biden, victim himself.
On the other hand, surely there are times when the plagiarism police should just look the other way. For instance, Obama’s overall campaign theme, “Yes, we can.” It was used by farm workers’ organizer Cesar Chavez in the early '70s. It’s the title of a book for colostomy patients. And, as every kindergartner knows, it is the inviolable watchword of Bob the Builder.
And so, I asked Widmer what risk Obama is taking by sloganeering with the categorically unoriginal “Yes, we can.” TED WIDMER: Well, it’s a much better slogan than “No, we can't.” BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Oh God, I wish I had said that.