Political Plagiarism

Rand Paul is upset that people caught him using lines from Wikipedia and elsewhere as if they were his own. He feels like a victim and wishes he could just duel someone to settle it all. Or spend a couple days in detention after school, but certainly not his whole career. His words, I hasten to admit. Personally, I think most of what he did was harmless and we should cut him some slack.

I had my own experience with political plagiarism scandals a few years ago. During the election primaries in 2008, someone said that “words don’t matter” and used this as a way to mock Obama. As a writer, I disagreed and wrote a few lines expressing that. I thought they were good enough I forwarded them to Obama via former Senator Gary Hart, who said he’d pass them along. Imagine my stunned surprise when I saw Obama read my lines on TV a few days later. What I’d sent was basically this:

“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? ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Just words? Just speeches?”

Imagine my even more stunned surprise a few days later when people accused Obama of plagiarizing these lines, not from me, but from his friend Deval Patrick. Turns out Patrick had stolen these words from me but somehow managed to do so a month before I’d written them.

Most likely Obama remembered his friend’s words and used them as an excellent example of his point. His friend did not care. Or, like me and Patrick, he may have come up with his own best examples of words that mattered and coincidentally chose the same ones. If he saw my lines at all and used them with my obvious blessing, he probably later assumed I’d stolen them from Patrick and the whole plagiarism flak was my fault. This may be why he never calls me.

At any rate, I don’t think we should judge Rand Paul based on his speech writers’ careless use of innocuous movie summaries. No matter what our politics, we need to start talking about more important issues.

Even if you think that Obama was born in Kenya, Ted Cruz in Canada, and John McCain in Panama, those just aren’t the most interesting things about any of them. And whether Rand Paul can summarize an old movie more eloquently than Wikipedia isn’t the most interesting thing about him either.

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