Plagiarism accusation stirs up campaign

The Baltimore Sun

For being "just words," they're sure stirring up some controversy.

Critics of Sen. Barack Obama are pointing to the similarity between one of the Democratic presidential hopeful's signature speeches and an address that Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick gave in 2006.

Although Patrick, who is close with Obama and shares his heavyweight political adviser, says he gave his friend permission to borrow his lines, that isn't stopping accusations of plagiarism.

Last weekend in Wisconsin, responding to statements from rival Sen. Hillary Clinton that she offers solutions while Obama merely "makes speeches," Obama told a stirred-up crowd, "Don't tell me words don't matter."

" 'I have a dream' - just words, " he said. "'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?"

A number of videos have appeared on YouTube, showcasing Obama's speech and Patrick's.

"'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal' - just words? Just words," Patrick says. "'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?"

The title on one YouTube video that displays the two speeches in split-screen: Just words. Just not Obama's.

"Just plagiarism," someone with the screen name iammrkcohen responded on the site.

Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said yesterday that plagiarism is particularly troubling because rhetorical skills are a key factor in Obama's appeal.

"It raises questions about the premise of his candidacy," Wolfson told reporters in a conference call.

Obama, meanwhile, said that while he should have credited Patrick in this case, he typically generates his own material.

"Now hold on a second. Let's see - I've written two books, wrote most of my speeches," Obama told reporters. "But I think that it is fair to say that everything that we've been doing in generating excitement and the interest that people have in the election is based on the core belief in me that we need change in America."

Joseph S. Tuman, a professor of political and legal communication at San Francisco State University, said yesterday that although the "pretty clear lifting" might not be stealing because Patrick doesn't mind - it's still fraught with ethical concerns because Obama made it seem as if the thought was his own.

And in such a close race, he thinks there could be potential consequences for Obama.

"It's misrepresentation," said Tuman, author of Political Communication in American Campaigns. "Would it diminish anything to say, 'Like Governor Patrick said?' It would be just as powerful, frankly."

Tuman, a former speechwriter, said borrowing or stealing or mimicry - whatever you want to call it - is common stuff in politics. Sometimes people notice. Often they don't.

"Having been a speechwriter myself, I can tell you there's seldom such a thing as an original idea," he said.

Infamously, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, in his 1988 presidential bid, plagiarized a speech by the then-leader of Britain's Labor Party. Michael S. Dukakis, his rival for the Democratic nomination, jumped on the situation, distributing a tape of Biden's address juxtaposed with its British counterpart. Biden dropped out of the race.

Andie Tucher, an assistant professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and a speechwriter for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992, called Biden's error a much clearer case of wrongdoing than Obama's because Obama's friendship with Patrick muddies the waters.

"What makes the situation complicated is that Patrick says, 'I gave him permission.' What makes it even more complicated is both politicians have the same political adviser," she said.

"What I would kind of like to know is Obama, who is known for his rhetoric, how much he is relying on his speechwriter? - that is almost an even better question. Is he writing his great stuff or not?"

People want to believe that what comes from politicians' mouths originates in their heart, she said. Yet, thanks to speechwriters, that is often not the case.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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