David Greenberg: Why Biden's plagiarism shouldn't be forgotten





[David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers, has two new books out: Presidential Doodles and Calvin Coolidge.]

Teachers and scholars consider the unattributed use of someone else's words and ideas to be a very serious offense, but the public doesn't seem to mind much, at least when it comes to politics. The incidents of plagiarism and fabrication that forced Joe Biden to quit the 1988 presidential race have drawn little comment since his selection as Barack Obama's vice presidential running mate—just as revelations of plagiarism by Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin scarcely hurt their book sales. In 1987, before Biden quit the race, he called the incidents "a tempest in a teapot." Although most reporters disagreed then, at least enough to pursue the story, they seem now—perhaps jaded by two decades of scandal-mongering—to have come around to Biden's view.

But Biden's exit from the 1988 race is worth recalling in detail, because his transgressions far exceeded Obama's own relatively innocent lifting of rhetorical set pieces from his friend Deval Patrick, which occasioned a brief flap last February. Biden's misdeeds encompassed numerous self-aggrandizing thefts, misstatements, and exaggerations that seemed to point to a serious character defect. In some ways, the 1988 campaign—in which scandal forced not just Biden but also Gary Hart from the race—marked a watershed in the absurd gotcha politics that have since marred our politics and punditry. But unlike Hart's plight, Biden's can't be blamed on an overly intrusive or hectoring press corps. The press was right to dig into this one.

In the 1988 race, Biden began as a long shot. But after Hart dropped out in May 1987 over the exposure of his affair with Donna Rice, none of the remaining "seven dwarves" in the Democratic field pulled away from the pack. Biden's youth and vitality—as well as his tutelage by Patrick Caddell, the pollster-consultant considered a veritable magician by insiders—made him a decent bet to reach the front of the pack. Over the summer, the rival campaigns of Michael Dukakis and Dick Gephardt became concerned as Biden ticked upward in the polls.

Biden's downfall began when his aides alerted him to a videotape of the British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, who had run unsuccessfully against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The tape showed Kinnock delivering a powerful speech about his rise from humble roots. Taken by the performance, Biden adapted it for his own stump speech. Biden, after all, was the son of a car salesman, a working-class kid made good. Kinnock's material fit with the story he was trying to sell.

At first Biden would credit Kinnock when he quoted him. But at some point he failed to offer the attribution. Biden maintained that he lapsed only once—at a debate at the Iowa State Fair, on Aug. 23, when cameras recorded it—but Maureen Dowd of the New York Times reported two incidents of nonattribution, and no one kept track exactly of every time Biden used the Kinnock bit. (Click here for examples of Biden's lifting.) What is certain is that Biden didn't simply borrow the sort of boilerplate that counts as common currency in political discourse—phrases like "fighting for working families." What he borrowed was Kinnock's life.

Biden lifted Kinnock's precise turns of phrase and his sequences of ideas—a degree of plagiarism that would qualify any student for failure, if not expulsion from school. But the even greater sin was to borrow biographical facts from Kinnock that, although true about Kinnock, didn't apply to Biden. Unlike Kinnock, Biden wasn't the first person in his family history to attend college, as he asserted; nor were his ancestors coal miners, as he claimed when he used Kinnock's words. Once exposed, Biden's campaign team managed to come up with a great-grandfather who had been a mining engineer, but he hardly fit the candidate's description of one who "would come up [from the mines] after 12 hours and play football." At any rate, Biden had delivered his offending remarks with an introduction that clearly implied he had come up with them himself and that they pertained to his own life.

Most American political reporters were not so attuned to Britain's politics that they recognized Kinnock's words. But Michael Dukakis' adviser John Sasso had seen the Kinnock tape. Without his boss's knowledge or consent, he prepared a video juxtaposing the two men's speeches and got it into the hands of Dowd at the Times, David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register, and NBC News. When the story broke on Sept. 12, Biden was gearing up to chair the Supreme Court nomination hearings for Robert Bork, Ronald Reagan's far-right nominee. Biden angrily denied having done anything wrong and urged the press to chase after the political rival who had sent out what came to be called the "attack video."

Unfortunately for Biden, more revelations of plagiarism followed, distracting him from the Bork hearings. Over the next days, it emerged that Biden had lifted significant portions of speeches from Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. From Kennedy, he took four long sentences in one case and two memorable sentences in another. (In one account, Biden said that Pat Caddell had inserted them in his speech without Biden's knowledge; in another account, the failure to credit RFK was chalked up to the hasty cutting and pasting that went into the speech.) From Humphrey, the hot passage was a particularly affecting appeal for government to help the neediest. Yet another uncited borrowing came from John F. Kennedy.

If that wasn't bad enough, Biden admitted the next day that while in law school he had received an F for a course because he had plagiarized five pages from a published article in a term paper that he submitted. He admitted as well that he had falsely stated that British Labor official Denis Healey had given him the Kinnock tape. (Healey had denied the claim.) And Biden conceded that he had exaggerated in another matter by stating in a speech some years earlier that he had joined sit-ins to desegregate restaurants and movie theaters, and was thus actively involved in the civil rights movement. He protested, his press secretary clarified, "to desegregate one restaurant and one movie theater." The latter two of these fibs were small potatoes by any reckoning, but in the context of other acts of dishonesty, they helped to form a bigger picture.

For all these disclosures, Biden remained unbowed. "I'm in the race to stay, I'm in the race to win, and here I come," he declared. That meant, of course, that his days were numbered. Newsweek soon reported on a C-SPAN videotape from the previous April that showed Biden berating a heckler at a campaign stop. While lashing out at the audience member, Biden defended his academic credentials by inflating them, in a fashion that was notably unbecoming and petty for a presidential candidate.

"I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect," Biden sniped at the voter. "I went to law school on a full academic scholarship." That claim was false, as was another claim, made in the same rant, that he graduated in the top half of his law-school class. Biden wrongly stated, too, that he had earned three undergraduate degrees, when in fact he had earned one—a double major in history and political science. Another round of press inquiries followed, and Biden finally withdrew from the race on Sept. 23.
The sheer number and extent of Biden's fibs, distortions, and plagiarisms struck many observers at the time as worrisome, to say the least. While a media feeding frenzy (a term popularized in the 1988 campaign) always creates an unseemly air of hysteria, Biden deserved the scrutiny he received. Quitting the race was the right thing to do.

Twenty-one years on, how much should Biden's past behavior matter? In and of itself, the plagiarism episode shouldn't automatically disqualify Biden from regaining favor and credibility, especially if in the intervening two decades he's not done more of the same, as seems to be the case. But no one has looked into it. The press should give his record since 1988 a thorough vetting. It's worth knowing whether the odds-on favorite to be our next vice president has truly reformed himself of behavior that can often be the mark of a deeply troubled soul.


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