One of these things is not like the others…
I would say Joe Biden will never live down his 1987 disgrace, when he withdrew from the Democratic Party’s presidential race after it was revealed that he plagiarized a speech—indeed, a life account—from UK Labor Party Leader Neil Kinnock. I would say that, except there is so much Biden should never be able to live down that doesn’t matter now that he is running against Donald Trump, not the least of which is that he is placing the nation and the integrity of the Presidency at risk by continuing his candidacy despite evidence of serious cognitive decline that he must be aware of.
During the 2016 campaign, I frequently mentioned my “Lawn Chair Test,” which is whether I would vote for a lawn chair rather than a particular candidate. Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton all flunked the Lawn Chair Test, and apparently the Trump Deranged are taking it literally, as it appears that in November they will be voting for the nearest thing to an actual lawn chair that has ever been on a Presidential ballot.
Nonetheless, the alleged plagiarism claims that have been trumpeted by some conservative news sources regarding Biden’s nomination acceptance speech are as unfair as they are silly.
Biden wrapped his speech in rousing fashion—well, it would have been rousing if Joe showed any energy at all—by saying: “For love is more powerful than hate. Hope is more powerful than fear. Light is more powerful than dark.”
The Canadians “pounced,” claiming that Joe’s words were unethically similar to those from a speech byJack Layton, the leader of Canada’s left-wing New Democratic Party, in an open farewell letter to his fellow citizens prior to his death in 2011. Layton wrote, “My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair.”
“A number of Canadians are struck by the similar parting words of Biden’s speech to the final words of Jack Layton’s farewell letter before his death,” CBC’s Washington correspondent Alexander Panetta tweeted.
Layton’s message, meanwhile, had itself employed somewhat similar language to that once used by former Canadian Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier, who had said in 1916, “Let me tell you that for the solution of these problems you have a safe guide, an unfailing light if you remember that faith is better than doubt and love is better than hate.”
Knowing that Republicans and others would be searching for “gotcha!” examples of plagiarism by Biden given the Kinnock scandal, his campaign invested in a $4,200 anti-plagiarism software program last year. It didn’t pick up on the similarities between Layton’s language and Biden’s (assuming he was the author of his speech, which he almost certainly was not), because there was no plagiarism. First, it was a single sentence, and hardly a remarkable one in either instance. I’d be shocked if similar sentences haven’t turned up in many political speeches throughout history. Second, they just aren’t that much alike, though Layton’s was better. Anger isn’t the same as hate. “Light is more powerful than dark,” isn’t the equivalent of “Optimism is better than despair.” Sure, the construction is the same, but that is a standard rhetorical device: three parallel statements, linked by cadence.
Oratory is a genre, and, like music, it is customary and traditional to borrow and alter phrases and sequences from the works of others, which in most cases weren’t completely original themselves. If Joe hadn’t already had a well-earned reputation as a plagiarist—as a law school student in 1965, Biden failed a class for citing published works without attribution—no one would have criticized him for this trivial sort-of match. The fact is that Joe Biden isn’t that bright and isn’t that articulate. He’s been a plodding, over-achiever his whole life. He needs to borrow from those more clever and gifted than he, and most speakers consider that kind of borrowing a compliment.
Here’s how it works: certain apt and memorable lines evolve and get perfected through the ages, until finally someone nails it. Then that one is theirs, and nobody can imitate it again without everyone noticing. A prime example is President John F. Kennedy’s famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” There are many recorded—and probably unrecorded— speeches that contain similar sentiments. Ted Sorensen, who wrote the speech with Kennedy, nailed it, perhaps aided by Jack, who had a headmaster who was fond of quoting an old Harvard dean who told graduating classes, “As has often been said, the youth who loves his Alma Mater will always ask, not “What can she do for me?” but “What can I do for her?”
Were Kennedy and his speechwriter plagiarizing? No.
Then there is Winston Churchill, who in 1940 famously told Parliament:
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills…We shall never surrender, and even if,which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of itwere subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
In a similarly desperate situation during the German offensive in the spring of 1918, French premier Georges Clemenceau rallied his people by saying,
“I shall fight before Paris, I shall fight behind Paris. The Germans may
take Paris but that will not stop me from carrying on the war. We shall
fight on the Loire, we shall fight on the Garonne, we shall fight even
in the Pyrenees. And should we be driven off the Pyrenees, we shall
continue the war from the sea. But as for asking for peace, never!”
Plagiarism? It’s a lot closer to plagiarism than Joe’s speech, but so what? Churchill wasn’t speaking for a grade, or for publication. Political oratory has a purpose, and accomplishing that purpose is paramount. He may have been inspired by Clemenceau, but Clemenceau might have taken his inspiration from Caesar, or Homer…it doesn’t matter. What mattered was inspiring a nation, not achieving 100% originality.
As for Joe’s little speech, it wasn’t within furlongs of Kennedy’s or Churchill’s, but accusing him of plagiarism this time is petty and unfair.