Entering content area for The Web of Language

blog posts

  • Just words: Is it plagiarism, homage, or business as usual when public figures like Obama and Clinton "forget" to footnote?

    Hillary Clinton has been charging that her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama, offers voters words, not deeds, and worse than that, the words aren’t even his own. But the former first lady hasn’t always credited her sources, either, whether for her award-winning but ghost-written book It takes a village to raise a child, or her campaign slogan, "Solutions for America," a phrase whose trademark is owned by a university. That’s only a problem if you expect public figures to adhere to the same code of ethics we demand of college students.

    If you haven’t been conscious for the last few days, here’s what this war of words is all about. In response to Clinton’s charge that he’s all talk, no action, Obama borrowed some words from the playbook of his long-time friend and Harvard Law School classmate, Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick.

    Obama and Patrick together

    Obama and Patrick have shared campaign slogans, and a political advisor, since 2004


    Campaigning in Wisconsin, Obama said, "Don't tell me words don't matter. … 'I have a dream.' Just words. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' Just words. 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself.' Just words. Just speeches." It was, to say the least, a crowd pleaser of a moment.

    Patrick used similar words in response to a similar attack during his 2006 campaign in Massachusetts: "'We have nothing to fear, but fear itself,' … just words. 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.' Just words. … 'I have a dream' … just words." Patrick won that race (and in doing so he even borrowed a slogan from Obama’s 2004 Illinois senate campaign).

    Not happy that Obama’s words were helping him win primaries, Clinton attacked his rhetoric again: "If your whole candidacy is about words, they should be your words," and she reiterated it in the Texas debate with Obama, adding, "Lifting whole passages from someone else’s speeches is not change you can believe in; it’s change you can Xerox.”

    Clinton didn’t fault Obama for failure to cite his sources. Both candidates have had successful academic careers that required skill in citation, among other things: Clinton was on the editorial board at Yale’s Law Review, and Obama was president of Law Review at Harvard Law School, and that experience, together with their subsequent publications, suggests they are well acquainted with the principles of citation and the contexts which require it. Both also know that a political speech isn’t a term paper or an article in law review.

    While English teachers all over the country responded to the latest attack that a public figure “forgot” to footnote by wringing their hands and wondering where they went wrong in their efforts to get students to credit their sources, Wisconsin’s democrats gave Obama a decisive victory in the primary, with 58% of the votes compared to Clinton’s 42%.

    But that didn’t stop the charges and counter-charges, which continue in the news and on the Net. Clinton didn’t actually come out and accuse Obama of plagiarism (though others saw her drift and quickly attacked him for word theft). Her point was that politicians should use their own words.

    But what weakens that point is the fact that politicians employ speech writers. It’s the rare public figure who uses his or her own words. Students, it’s true, are supposed to do their own work and keep their eyes on their own paper. But we don’t expect celebrities to write their own books or politicians to draft their own speeches. Even presidents of universities, most of them academics well-versed in the ways of scholarship, have speech writers to tell them what to say.

    So it’s no surprise that Hillary Clinton’s publisher, Simon and Schuster, hired Barbara Feinman Todd, who directs the journalism program at Georgetown University in Washington, to ghostwrite her 1996 New York Times best seller, It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us, a book whose on-tape version won a Grammy for Clinton in 1997 and whose title is not her own words but an homage to the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” (Although it was no secret that Feinman Todd ghosted the book, she's not acknowledged in the credits.) On top of that, Inside HIgher Education reports that the slogan for many of Clinton's campaign events was trademarked as a slogan by the Univ. of Richmond for its own socal-action programs.

    It takes a village to run a campaign as well, and the modern version of that village includes not just fund raisers, but also speech writers, media advisors, press secretaries, spin doctors, money launderers, and even dirty tricksters. It might include fact checkers, research assistants, and librarians, but if it does, their job is not to crank out footnotes, because there’s no room for citations in a sound bite.

    A whole industry arose trying to track down the source of Jack Kennedy’s famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country,” on the assumption that anyone whose rhetoric was so stirring couldn’t really have an original idea. And Dr. Martin Luther King’s reputation survived charges that he plagiarized everything from his Boston University dissertation to his often-anthologized “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

    Other public figures get snagged by their failure to attribute: Joe Biden’s career almost got derailed when he grafted a biographical speech of British Labour leader Neil Kinnock onto his own life. Biden got in trouble again when he called Barack Obama “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate,” implying that such a quality was unusual for an African American. Historian Joe Ellis was censured when he invented a better autobiography than the life he really lived. Glen Poshard, a politician who became president of Southern Illinois University, was castigated for plagiarizing his SIU dissertation. And the dean of Northwestern’s School of Journalism got into hot water for using unattributed (and possibly faked) student quotes in a publicity brochure for the school.

    Whatever you think about the issue of candidates writing their own words, the Clinton-Obama contest will resolve itself, at best, in votes, not words. At worst, it will be settled not by fact-checkers or bloggers, but by deal-makers in the smoke-filled nonsmoking back rooms at the Democratic National Convention.

    In any case, after eight years of listening to a president who prides himself in not being silver-tongued, or even knowlng what words mean, it’s no surprise that the country might bask in the language of a leader who is both majorly intelligent and a polished, impressive, and confident public speaker.

    Another Obama critic

    Bill rallies Clinton supporters in must-win Texas while a fan offers a biased grammatical critique of Sen. Obama. In fact the former first lady’s manner of speaking is often targeted as unnatural, while Barack Obama has no trouble talking the kind of talk that both impresses voters, and that stood him in good stead as well in the ivy-covered halls of Columbia and Harvard, where he went to school, and the University of Chicago, where he taught law before becoming a politician. Incidentally, no one has suggested that Obama borrowed his "just words" idea from Just Words: Law, Language, and Power, by John M. Conley and William M. O'Barr, published by the Univ. of Chicago Press in 1998, while Obama was on the Chicago Law School faculty.

additional blog information