Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Unjust words

The runner stumbles: Over the weekend Barack Obama, responding in a speech to an assertion by Hillary Clinton that his campaign was less animated by sound ideas than by a hollow rhetoric, used words that were not his. All in all, a minor lapse in judgment, but it’s still a worrying thing, not least of all because it calls into question his one unassailable strength on the campaign trail: the ability to connect to voters’ truths with truths of his own.

Obama said the following on Saturday, addressing voters at a party for the state’s Democratic Party, 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. 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself.' Just words, just speeches!"

Good, solid, rousing stuff — what we’ve come to expect from the best Democratic empath-as-candidate since, go figure, Bill Clinton. But hold up. Do a quick Google. Return with us now to October 2006, at a campaign rally where Deval Patrick, then seeking the governorship of Massachusetts, defended himself from attacks by challenger, then-lieutenant governor Kerry Healey, by saying the following:



"Her dismissive point, and I hear it a lot from her staff, is all I have to offer is words. Just words. '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."

Howls of “plagiarism!” went up almost immediately from the press and from the Clinton campaign. "If your whole candidacy is about words, then they should be your own words," Clinton said in Madison, Wisconsin, on Monday (CNN). "That's what I think."

Strictly speaking, however, it’s not really plagiarism, certainly nowhere near the plagiarism that leaps to mind a la former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair and other lesser-known violators of journalistic principle.

In practice, you need more than two words (“just words?”) to credibly make a claim of plagiarism. Screaming that this was plagiarism attempts to redefine the gravity of that offense down to a granular level of micro-juxtaposition it really doesn’t deserve.

"

Those two words were the repeated links in a chain of oft-used (and not-always attributed) quotes from American history. The gist of the speeches of Obama and Patrick are taken from the speeches of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Rev. Martin Luther King, words from the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson. Collectively they’re excerpts of the national Holy Writ, not so much intellectual property as the DNA of the national character. If using those words without the names of their writers is plagiarism, we’re all guilty.

But true enough: When you compare Patrick’s 2006 speech to Obama’s last week, it’s clear Obama is guilty of at least oratorical malpractice, by copying the cadence, historical phraseology and stylistic construction of Patrick’s speech — right down to the “just words?” punch-phrase. (Maybe Obama fell victim to our abbreviated sense of time, our rush to stature. Maybe he thought Patrick’s remarks had already passed enough time to be part of American history and needing no attribution. Are we really moving that fast?)

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Words are flighty, evanescent little things, even in the age of the Internet (maybe even because of the age of the Internet). We capture these lightning bugs with technology that’s more like a net than a glass jar; we lift quotes and passages from popular and classic cultures all the time, the better to populate the speech of our everyday interactions. We move passages from Web-site commentaries into e-mail, the better to make a point without typing it all in. Our cut-and-paste culture is nothing new. The bar’s higher, though, for someone working the rope lines of the nation looking to lead that nation.

What makes this so galling is the fact that Obama didn’t need to do it. We’ve known for years that he has his own profound gift with words, an oratorical endowment that doesn’t need to crib from anyone. And it won’t do to blame his campaign manager, David Axelrod, for this gaffe, as some in the blogosphere have suggested. Obama’s been enough of his own man in this campaign to speak his own truth to power. It’s Obama’s bad, and no one else’s.

The candidate apparently got the message; on Monday he acknowledged that he should have attributed that part of his speech to Patrick, in a statement that was less an apology than an explanation. "I've written two books, wrote most of my speeches. So I think putting aside the question ... in terms of whether my words are my own, I think that would be carrying it too far," Obama said.

"Deval and I do trade ideas all the time, and you know he's occasionally used lines of mine," Obama said.

Axelrod put it in another intriguing way. "They often riff off one another. They share a world view," he told the New York Times, raising a tantalizing idea: two players exchanging riffs, trading fours as a election strategy — politics as jazz! (Hey, Patrick’s father played the sax in Sun Ra’s band — why not?) "Both of them are effective speakers whose words tend to get requoted and arguments tend to be embraced widely," Axelrod said.

We’ll see if this has any effect on how people voted when polls close today in Wisconsin and Hawaii. For now, let’s call it what it is: not so much plagiarism as a clear-cut case of oratorical impersonation, a hijacking of someone’s populist rhetorical delivery by a man who ought to know better, someone who seems to be strong enough to take his own punch.
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Image credit: Sun Ra at New England Conservatory, Feb. 27, 1992. Photo © by Pandelis Karayorgis, reproduced (fair use) under GNU Free Documentation License.

1 comment:

  1. The Clinton camp is being petty. Whatever happens. Whomever is nominated. In the end, how will they work together? Hillary Clinton has proven herself as being vindictive. And quite frankly, that is not the kind of person I want leading my country.

    ReplyDelete

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