Understandably, Joe Biden’s campaign-ending bout with plagiarism two decades ago has been getting its share of attention over the past 24 hours, with the Clinton campaign drawing a parallel with Barack Obama’s lift of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s words.
Certainly, Obama’s delivery of the passage in question was pretty much identical, as the video evidence now available on YouTube clearly shows. So why isn’t it being treated with the same gravity?
There are many important differences between the Biden example and the Obama allegations. For instance, Biden appropriated a deeply personal and highly specific passage from Neil Kinnock, who was then the leader of Britain’s Labour Party. Kinnock had spoken about being the first in his family to attend college, invoking his Welsh parents and grandparents, who slaved away in coal mines but who also “taught me to sing and play and recite and write poetry.”
Biden, in turn, praised his own non-existent coal-mining relatives from Pennsylvania—”people who read poetry and wrote poetry and taught me how to sing verse,” he said, one of several nearly identical characterizations he borrowed from Kinnock.
Obama did not claim any of Patrick’s biographical details as his own. He simply recited a few lines that—according to both men—Patrick had encouraged him to add to his speech. In effect, Patrick played the role of speechwriter, and only for a few sentences. Biden, by contrast, never consulted with (or even met) Kinnock before taking his lines.
The biggest difference is this: When John Sasso—the chief strategist for Biden’s chief rival, Michael Dukakis—caught wind of the ’87 episode, he knew he had a winner and he proceeded accordingly. That meant that he said nothing to the press or even to his candidate, and instead saw to it that the incriminating video evidence was leaked to the media. The evidence was so clear-cut that no spinning was required. (Of course, this strategy ultimately cost Sasso his job with Dukakis—but it succeeded in driving Biden from the race.)
Hillary Clinton’s campaign, though, addressed the Obama speech situation in the press through Howard Wolfson, and they have pushed the story aggressively. The fact that it needs selling at all is an indication that this is a very different story than Biden’s.