February 18th, 2008
04:59 PM ET

Jeffrey Toobin: Politicians Steal too

T.S. Eliot is said to have observed, “Good poets borrow, great poets steal.”

All writers build on the work of their predecessors, and politicians do it most of all.  Is there one challenger for any office who has not said, “It’s time for a change”?  Is there one candidate for president who hasn’t promised “to get this country moving again”?  And who thinks politicians write their own speeches anyway?  That’s why the job of speechwriter exists.

And yet there is something a little creepy about a candidate who borrows too closely from the words of others.   The most famous example of controversial borrowing came in 1988, when Joe Biden said in a speech:

“I was thinking as I was coming over here, why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university? Why is it that my wife who is sitting out there in the audience is the first in her family to ever go to college? Is it because our fathers and mothers were not bright? Is it because I'm the first Biden in a thousand generations to get a college and a graduate degree that I was smarter than the rest? .... Those same people who read poetry and wrote poetry and taught me to sing verse? Is it that they didn't work very hard, my ancestors who worked in the coal mines of Northeast Pennsylvania and would come up after 12 hours and play football for four hours?”

The campaign of Michael Dukakis, Biden’s rival for the Democratic nomination, called attention to a speech by the British Labor Party politician Neil Kinnock, who said:

“Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to University? Why is Glenys [Kinnock's wife] the first woman in her family in a thousand generations to get to university? Was it because all our predecessors were thick?. . . Those people who could sing and play and recite and write poetry? Those people who could make wonderful, beautiful things with their hands? Those people who could dream dreams, see visions? Why didn't they get it? Was it because they were weak? Those people who could work eight hours underground and then come up and play football?”

Biden, embarrassed, pulled out of the race.

What will happen now to Barack Obama, now that he’s been shown to have used phrases very much like those of his friend Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts?  My guess is probably not much, but for a candidate who has vaulted to prominence largely based on his speeches (as opposed to his accomplishments), the disclosure has to sting.

Still, as I have often said, the only thing Obama has to fear is fear itself.

– Jeffrey Toobin, CNN Sr. Analyst

Editor's note: Jeffrey sends this postscript: I should point out that my own discussion of this subject, and the Biden and Kinnock quotes in particular, was, uh, borrowed from Peter W. Morgan and Glenn H. Reynolds’s book, “The Appearance of Impropriety.”   The chapter on plagiarism can be found on the-idler.com

Filed under: Barack Obama • Jeffrey Toobin • Raw Politics
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