The Last Word on Plagiarism in Speechwriting (for Now)

If you’re going to steal, steal something that has been stolen a few times before.

When the charge of “plagiarism” is applied to political rhetoric, I always smile a speechwriter’s smile.  Because I sometimes wonder if political rhetoric is anything else.

For example, Abraham Lincoln’s famous 1858 speech, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” was derived from one of the sayings of Jesus.  In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus declares: "Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.”  (Matt. 12:25, KJV)

And Lincoln wasn’t the first to use that one.  Eight years earlier, in a debate over the Compromise of 1850, Sen. Sam Houston had said something quite similar: "A nation divided against itself cannot stand.”

Of course, most mid-19th Century Americans knew the Bible much better than most Americans do today, and so they probably recognized that both Lincoln and Houston were appealing to Scripture.  At least nobody accused either of them of plagiarism at the time.

Nor, to the best of my knowledge, did anyone accuse Franklin Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy of plagiarizing the most famous lines associated with each of them.

FDR’s most famous line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” goes back at least as far as 1580, to an essay by Michel de Montaigne: “The thing of which I have most fear is fear.”  In 1623, Sir Francis Bacon expressed the same idea in a slightly different form: “Nothing is terrible except fear itself.”  And in 1832, the Duke of Wellington chimed in with this: “The only thing I am afraid of is fear.”

John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” also has antecedents.  In 1884, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the future Supreme Court justice, appealed to an audience to “recall what our country has done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return.”  More than likely, however, JFK had in mind the Rev. George St. John, headmaster Choate, his prep school, who frequently exhorted his students not to ask what their school could do for them but what they could do for their school.

When a speaker tweaks an expression that has been used before, or when a speaker uses words or expressions that are in common use, it is difficult to make a charge of plagiarism stick.

During the Democratic primaries of 2008, for example, some top people in Hillary Clinton’s campaign accused then-Senator Barack Obama of plagiarism because he lifted some lines from a speech given the previous year by his friend Deval Patrick, Governor of Massachusetts.

“Don’t tell me words don’t matter,” Obama told a Wisconsin audience. “‘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?”

Patrick had used identical language during his 2006 race for governor. Patrick said this: “’We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ –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?”

In reply to the Clinton camp’s charges, Sen. Obama retorted that he hadn’t complained when Sen. Clinton said, “It’s time to turn the page,” or that she’s “fired up and ready to go,” or otherwise used the same stock language used by him. And with that, the controversy died.

So is there no such thing as plagiarism in political speech?  I wouldn’t go quite that far.

In my opinion, if a politician steals someone else’s original eloquence—as  opposed to an idea or turn of phrase that’s been kicking around in one form or another for years—and passes it off as his own, that is plagiarism.

In 1987, for example, Sen. Joe Biden plagiarized a speech from British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, and the slip may well have cost him the Democratic nomination for the presidency. “Why is it,” he asked in a speech he gave in Iowa, “that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go a university? Why is it that my wife . . . is the first in her family to ever go to college? Is it because our fathers and mothers were not bright? . . . Is it because they didn't work hard? My ancestors who worked in the coal mines of northeast Pennsylvania and would come after 12 hours and play football for four hours? It's because they didn't have a platform on which to stand.” 

Neil Kinnock, a descendant of Welsh coal miners, had given the original speech, and Biden changed just a few words  Was this plagiarism?  Even Biden tacitly admitted that it was, because on several previous occasions when he used those lines, he had given due credit to Kinnock.  It was only on that occasion in Iowa that he quoted the lines without attribution, to his everlasting chagrin.

More recently, in September of 2005, former Vice President Al Gore committed a blatant theft from Winston Churchill. Speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City, Gore warned that Hurricane Katrina was just a sample of the natural disasters that we could expect as the result of global warming. “Katrina,” he intoned, “is the first sip, the first taste, of a bitter cup that will be proffered to us over and over again.”

Speaking on the floor of the House of Commons after Britain’s shameful capitulation to Hitler at Munich in 1938, Churchill had said, “This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year …”

How could Gore have been so brazen—or so dumb? Surely he must have realized that the “bitter cup” phrase would be the sound bite of the speech, as indeed it was.  Did he think his rhetorical pilfering would pass unnoticed?

Now what about the current controversy over Melania Trump’s alleged  plagiarizing of Michelle Obama?

When Mrs. Trump used the same clichés and stock phrases as Mrs. Obama—such as “your word is your bond,” “do what you say,” or “treat people with respect”—I wouldn’t call that plagiarism.

But I would hold otherwise where Mrs. Trump said, for example, “Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”

These are not stock phrases, and she was repeating almost word for word what Michelle Obama had said in 2008: “Because we want our children—and all children in this nation—to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”

A professor friend of mine informs me that in academia, the standard measure for plagiarism is “nine words in exact sequence.” Clearly, by that standard, Mrs. Trump’s speech qualifies as plagiarism, and her speechwriter conceded as much.

So what’s the takeaway for speechwriters? I’d say that there are two ways to avoid charges of plagiarism. The first—and safest—is to be original. The second is this: If you’re going to steal, steal something that has been stolen a few times before.

Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell currently freelances in Houston, TX.

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