Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
On October 15, 2006, speaking of his female opponent Kerry Healey, Patrick said: “But her dismissive point, and I hear it a lot from her staff, is that all I have to offer is words — just words. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, [applause and cheers] that all men are created equal.’ [Sustained applause and cheers.] Just words – just words! ‘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!” Last Saturday night in Milwaukee, 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! [Applause.] ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Just words — just speeches!” In response someone only identified as “an Obama official” said: “They're friends who share similar views and talk and trade good lines all the time.”
Plagiarism is a serious charge, especially to those of us in the academy. But this is a confusing case. On the one hand, as historians familiar with the history of campaigning, we immediately think of Senator Joe Biden, who withdrew from the 1988 campaign in disgrace when the Dukakis campaign circulated a videotape of Biden stealing a biographical riff from the British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. (It turns out that Biden usually did acknowledge Kinnock but that particular time lapsed – and watched his campaign implode). Like Biden, Obama should be held to a high standard because so much of his political identity rests on his rhetoric. On the other hand, as historians who assess many speeches, we know that great oratory resonates because it builds on our collective memory banks, offering original twists on familiar phrases. Moreover, as lecturers, we know that when we speak spontaneously we cannot be as scrupulous about not echoing others as we are in our writing – and Obama’s riff was spontaneous, it was not written out in his prepared remarks.
On a personal note, I was particularly intrigued by the Obama defense that, in essence, this was part of an implicit collaboration, an ongoing partnership and brainstorming with a friend. Without mentioning names so as to avoid embarrassing the reporter yet again, I was once contacted by a reporter who accused another reporter of plagiarizing my work. The alleged plagiarist mentioned me twice in his article, but then had an unattributed riff that clearly echoed my work. I emailed the accuser, saying, that given the other citations, and the fact that I had been interviewed by the reporter numerous times, and was always mentioned in the ensuing articles, I was not offended, did not consider it plagiarism, and often gave journalists more slack considering their time and space constraints. The accusing reporter then called me up and asked me, “would it be okay if one of your students did not document part of a paper?” Cornered, I admitted that no, it would be “unacceptable” if a student submitted a paper without properly attributing a paragraph that was based so clearly on someone else’s work. With that, the accuser had his “j’accuse.” He ran the story, embarrassed his colleague, and the accused reporter never interviewed me again.
According to Peter Slevin of the Washington Post, Obama dismissed the plagiarism charges. "Well, look, I was on the stump," he said. Speaking of his friend Governor Patrick, Obama said: "He had suggested we use these lines. I thought they were good lines. I'm sure I should have. Didn't this time." All in all, Obama doubted "this is too big of a deal."
In thinking this issue through, I think it is a bigger “deal” than Obama concedes. His campaign – in fact the stolen riff itself – emphasizes just how important his words are to his campaign, and words are to American politics historically. Obama missed an opportunity with his airy dismissal. He could have said, “I’m sorry, that was wrong.” In so doing, he would have distanced himself from both George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton – two of the leading American politicians least likely to apologize. In one classy moment, Obama could have proven that his rhetoric is real, that he really is the candidate of change. Instead, the usually nimble junior Senator from Illinois gave us all the same old Washington shuffle. What a pity that he chose to imitate the ways of his new hometown when trying to defend his occasional penchant for mimicry on the stump.
If Hillary Clinton succeeds in winning the Democratic nomination – and it is looking more and more iffy – she and the Democrats will be grateful for the harsh reality check Barack Obama has imposed on her candidacy. Let’s face it. She has been an awful candidate running a terrible campaign. You cannot win the presidency ricocheting from the insecurity reflected in her now famous tears in New Hampshire to the arrogance of Bill Clinton’s racially-polarizing barnstorming in South Carolina. In order for this Ohio-Texas firewall of hers to work, Hillary Clinton has to retool, changing her strategy, revitalizing her campaign, and redefining her message. Otherwise, she will lose. However, if she succeeds in reviving her campaign, she will be grateful that her crisis came during the primaries, making her a more effective candidate for the general election.
All campaigns ebb and flow. John McCain was lucky to bottom-out in the fall, before many voters really paid attention. The entire Clinton franchise benefited from the myth of Bill Clinton as the (self-styled) “Comeback Kid” in 1992, when he did not even win the New Hampshire primary but stayed viable as a candidate after enduring so many scandals.
Hillary Clinton seemed to think that she could float into the presidency, or certainly into the Democratic nomination. In this way, she was not only badly served by the sycophants she loves to surround herself with, but she was deprived of an opportunity to sharpen her skills during her 2006 re-election campaign. Her easy stroll to re-election in New York State made her staffers complacent and muddied her message. Rather than being forced to come up with a compelling new message and creative new strategies in a large, diverse state, she took a stately victory lap – and frittered away tens of millions of dollars along the way.
Now, she has to prove her own abilities to rebound. To do so, she should learn from two politicians she detested, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Hillary Clinton should study Nixon’s 1968 campaign. He, too, was disliked by many, with the enmity lingering from White House controversies of the previous decade. To mollify some of his critics, Nixon and his advisers launched the “New Nixon,” a softer, friendlier incarnation, promising to restore harmony to the nation.
Part of the problem Hillary Clinton faces is that Nixon’s strategy implicitly apologized for his previous harsh partisanship. But while her husband is the great bite-your-lower-lip apologizer, she is not. Like another Republican, the current president George W. Bush, she is famously unwilling to apologize, to acknowledge imperfections. To her, apologies are a form of weakness, and she genuinely feels she has nothing that requires making amends.
Americans, however, love stories of redemption – especially in campaign season. During the 1984 campaign, after stumbling in the first debate against Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan stopped his slide with one quick quip. By coming back at the President again and again in the first debate, Mondale made Reagan look old and befuddled. Reagan responded in the second debate by quipping: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Surprisingly, that comeback line helped Reagan rebound and win the election.
Hillary Clinton should launch the new Hillary by apologizing to her supporters for running such a terrible campaign. If done right, without acknowledging any previous mistakes, without opening up all the Clinton controversies from the 1990s that linger, a broad enough, sufficiently self-critical apology could acknowledge the widespread doubts about many issues, bury the past, and look toward the future.
At the same time, Hillary Clinton has to show she has internalized the criticism by running a crisper campaign with a more passionate message. Experience – especially given how spotty her record as First Lady really was – is not enough. Americans are yearning for vision, seeking inspiration, craving redemption. Hillary cannot echo Obama as the “change” candidate; he has got that market cornered. But she can pull a classic Clinton move, triangulating between Obama’s optimism and John McCain’s real national security experience. Let the new Hillary be the candidate of true American values at home and abroad, promising to restore a sense of national virtue while maintaining American security and stability.
Rather than running away from Iraq, Hillary Clinton should run toward the complicated diplomatic issues the next American president will face, and the continuing threat of Islamist terror. She represented New York during 9/11, she knows what devastation America’s enemies can bring. She can prey on fears of Obama’s inexperience by tackling the foreign policy issues America faces directly. And if she can figure out a couple of clever, defining quips along the way – that wouldn’t hurt either.
Remember back in 1992 Clinton was the candidate of hope, who happened to be born in a little town called Hope. Coming from nowhere, a relative unknown when he started, he was carrying the torch of a new generation, generating rock-star like crowds with his special kind of charisma and his own distinctive eloquence steeped in optimism. Clinton on the campaign trail had that “It” factor that Obama has. Clinton had millions gushing that he was their John Kennedy, the first candidate in their lifetime who inspired them and empowered them.
Clinton, like Obama, also had sex appeal. I recall meeting a leading woman academic who admitted, just after the 1992 election, that she had received one of those emails bouncing around the internet identifying ten signs that you have a crush on Bill Clinton – and that she had almost all of them.
Bill Clinton’s transitions from wunderkind to senior statesman, from man of hope to perpetual adolescent, from party renegade to ultimate insider, have all obscured the jazz and optimism of 1992. President Clinton did not indulge in the same kind of inspirational politics that candidate Clinton or President Kennedy did. Of course, Hillary Clinton’s own artlessness on the campaign trail also accounts for some of the historical haze.
In fact, the contrast between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as campaigners is striking. Obama words are lyrical, his manner is fluid, the speeches rock. Compare him -- even when he lost in New Hampshire -- and Hillary Clinton when she won in New Hampshire. He is as smooth, as she is stiff. His words take off, soaring like colorful balloons that you want to linger over and watch until they have disappeared from view; her clipped tones and predictable words sink like the proverbial lead balloons. It is not surprising that Obama’s words have been set to music – Hillary Clinton should not expect such treatment for her earnest addresses any time soon. This kind of ease cannot be invented or replicated -- you either have it or you don't -- Bill Clinton has it, Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush - who had other talents -- didn't. Ronald Reagan had it. Walter Mondale, his opponent in 1984, didn't.
And yet, the fact that so many Americans now skip over Bill Clinton and go straight to John Kennedy when rummaging through the historical attic searching for inspiring characters, offers sobering warnings to Obama and to the American people. While Franklin D. Roosevelt was correct -- the presidency is pre-eminently a place of moral leadership – governing is not the same as politicking. The transition from being an inspirational candidate to a workaday president can be rough. Ronald Reagan was more successful than Bill Clinton at remaining fired up. Bill Clinton’s experience was more typical, as the complexity of governing turned him from the poet of possibility to the king of compromise.
We know Obama knows how to wow a crowd, we don’t know how he would weather the transition from shaper of dreams to maker of policies. Ironically, the somewhat embarrassing comparison between Barack Obama circa 2008 and Bill Clinton circa 1992 reinforces one of Hillary Clinton’s most compelling arguments for her own election. She keeps saying trust the record not the rhetoric. Of course, she and her campaign team would love to find a different analogy to help bolster that argument.
A few election cycles ago, reporters started to notice that voters were becoming way too self-conscious and savvy. When speaking to television reporters, more and more American citizens tended to speak in the kind of fifteen-second sound bites that actually appeared on the news. Moreover, when reporters asked about a particular candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, more and more voters tended to handicap the candidate’s chances, rather than assess the candidates’ governing abilities. All the talk about Rudy Giuliani’s failed Florida firewall and foolishness in skipping Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina reflects this unfortunate modern tendency – caused, of course, by reporters themselves – to so focus on the horserace and forget about the actual purpose of the exercise.
The relevant fact about Giuliani’s stunning fall from popular-front runner in the polls throughout most of 2007 to primary failure in 2008 is this: the more voters got to know Rudy Giuliani the less they liked him. Giuliani’s campaign suffered from exposure not inattention. At the end of the day, the questionable business deals, the Clintonesque sloppiness in family matters, the heavyhanded governing approach, all hurt Giuliani. Voters sensed, correctly, that Giuliani combined the worst traits of America’s two recent presidents. Like President Bush, Mayor Giuliani is a divider not a uniter; and like Bill Clinton, Rudy Giuliani’s private immorality undermines his appealing, even self-righteous, public persona. In short, in this case, campaigns did exactly what they are supposed to do – allow voters to meet candidates, assess them and reject those who are unsuitable.
In many ways, the greater anomaly that needs to be explained is Giuliani’s sustained popularity in 2007 rather than his 2008 collapse. The short answer – 9/11 -- offers a warning to the Democrats and helps explain John McCain’s surge. Although Joe Biden’s classic line, that all Giuliani needs in a sentence is a noun, a verb, and 9/11, offers a clever counter to America’s current national security obsession, millions of Americans remain very concerned about terrorism. Millions seek a leader who will fight Islamist terrorism vigorously and effectively. Rudy Giuliani was popular because he has strong national security credentials but enough distance from the Bush Administration not to be defined by Bush’s failures to find Osama Bin Laden or stabilize Iraq. John McCain may be the Democrats’ worst nightmare as a candidate because he, too, is strong on defense but weak on loyalty to Bush.
Even though it was Rudy himself and not his strategy that did him in, Giuliani’s need to resort to that strategy reinforces the message that the primary process as currently constituted is ridiculous. The Iowa-New Hampshire monopoly on starting the nominating process should end. Florida’s Democratic delegates should be counted, and both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama should apologize to each and every Florida Democrat for following their national party’s ridiculous rules and refusing to campaign in the nation’s fourth most populated state. Another, less flawed, candidate like Giuliani could also have been compelled to ignore the small, heavily-rural states of Iowa and New Hampshire. During the next president’s first hundred days, he – or she – should strike a commission to fix America’s electoral system. The recommendations should of course cover the voting questions that persist from the 2000 electoral deadlock and still have not been addressed adequately. But the insane hold the little states of Iowa and New Hampshire have on the world’s most powerful country and most important democracy should be lifted, so that better candidates than Rudy Giuliani do not suffer from the caprice of the electoral calendar as many believe he did.