To err is human and may herald presidential race


Sen. Paul Sarbanes' chances of become president of the United States dimmed considerably this week.

What's that? You weren't aware Sarbanes had chances of becoming president?

You thought he was just Maryland's Stealth Senator, the guy you never seem to see or hear from until -- boom! -- he flashes on the TV screen some night?

Well, you are wrong. Paul Sarbanes is a contender.

After the Mike Dukakis debacle in 1988, Democratic Party leaders sent a questionnaire to every Democratic officeholder in America in an attempt to find new presidential candidates for 1992. The questionnaire asked two things:

1. Are you reasonably warm and friendly with a personality the average American can respond to?

2. Have you ever given a convicted murderer a weekend furlough from prison?

So Sarbanes was batting .500 from the beginning.

But this week, disaster struck. Sarbanes was caught "borrowing" from testimony by noted historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. at a Senate hearing.

And immediately word spread that Sarbanes had "pulled a Biden," a reference to Sen. Joe Biden, who was forced out of the 1988 presidential contest after delivering a speech in Iowa that began: "Fourscore and seven years ago . . . "

No, actually Biden filched some phrases and thoughts from a British politician, other incidents of plagiarism were found, and overnight Biden was dead meat.

Will this happen to Paul Sarbanes? It is hard to say. People look upon such borrowing in different ways.

In my own profession, plagiarism is taken very seriously and I know some people who have been fired for it. (In some cases, however, the plagiarist is shifted to a job where ethical lapses can't hurt anything: He is made an editor.)

But in politics, there is a long history of using the words of others. Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison all helped George Washington prepare his farewell address. (I got this, by the way, from William Safire, the kind of guy who'd sue the pants off me in a second if I didn't give him credit.)

But this is not considered plagiarism. If you hire a speech writer or a ghost writer, you can take their work as your own and that is perfectly OK.

And in the past, you could also borrow like crazy and nobody made a fuss. FDR's famous "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" can be traced to Michel Eyquem de Montaigne's "The thing of which I have most fear is fear," as well as Francis Bacon, the Duke of Wellington, Henry David Thoreau and the Bible.

And in 1964, when Ronald Reagan said, "You and I have a rendezvous with destiny," he was borrowing from Roosevelt's 1933 line: "This generation has a rendezvous with destiny."

Today, we have presidents who hardly ever speak their own words. All of George Bush's memorable lines, for instance, were written by others.

Take his "thousand points of light" phrase. To his credit, Bush admitted he not only didn't write it, but didn't even understand it at first. It was written by professional speech writer Peggy Noonan.

And it so baffled Bush that he often screwed it up while repeating it. He once called it "1,000 points of life," and in a New York Times interview he managed to call it "a thousand shining hills." (I stole this from Tom Raum of the Associated Press, by the way. Thanks, Tom. No sense calling my editors and complaining now.)

So the question soon became not who Bush stole it from, but who Noonan stole it from. Noonan deals with this in her book "What I Saw At the Revolution":

"First, someone in Pennsylvania apparently called a radio talk show a few weeks after the speech and said the phrase 'a thousand points of light' is from a Nazi hymnbook or was a famous Nazi phrase."

This was untrue, but people eventually found the phrase or versions of the phrase in the writings of Van Gogh, C. S. Lewis and Alexander Hamilton. And the phrase "a thousand points of friendly light" appears in Thomas Wolfe's "The Web and The Rock," which Noonan had read as a teen-ager.

"Is it possible it was on file in my unconscious and bubbled up when I needed the right phrase?" Noonan writes. "Yes."

OK, so maybe she stole it "unconsciously." But that's probably the same way Sarbanes lifted Schlesinger's stuff. It happens in Washington where great minds are so few, they often think alike.

The Sarbanes borrowing was discovered by Mark Matthews of The Sun, though the rumor quickly began that the staff of Secretary of State James Baker had leaked the story to Matthews to humiliate Sarbanes.

This is not true, however. Matthews noted the similarity between Schlesinger's words and Sarbanes' words all by himself. (This was a considerable feat, by the way. After listening to senators talk for five hours, most people could not tell you what day it was, let alone who said what.)

So what should happen to Sarbanes now? Nothing. He admitted his error and apologized. And I say let Paul Sarbanes continue his quest for the presidency.

Because, after all, the quality of mercy is not strain'd. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice bless'd. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

And don't go trying to steal that. I like it so much, I'm going to have it copyrighted.

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