Sunday, February 24, 2008

Thoughts on Political Plagiarism

I have been entertained no end by the charges of plagiarism between the Democratic Candidates seeking four years of free lodging in the White House.

What strikes me as odd is the very idea that any politician (beyond one running for county dog catcher) is speaking words originally created by himself or herself that purely reflect his or her view of the world. Have we learned nothing from watching talk show comedians working without writers? Most of their clever words come from someone else.

My perspective on this is rather unusual. My Russian professor in college wrote jokes for Phyllis Diller. My teacher would not tell us what jokes she had sold; her contract would not allow her to do so. Once the joke was sold, Phyllis Diller owned it just as if she had thought it up herself. It was abundantly clear to us, however, that my teacher had plenty of wry humor to draw from if needed. (There is even no way to know if the "quote" given in the Wikipedia article was invented by Phyllis Diller or by one of her writers. All we know for sure is that she said it.)

The best moment so far had to be the matched clips of Bill and Hillary speaking the exact same line 16 years apart (shown on one of the Sunday talk shows) after a comparison of Obama and Patrick giving a similar speech. So? What makes anyone think that Bill wrote the line he spoke? It is not out of the question that he said something Hillary wrote 16 years ago, and now she is using it herself. Or that the same speech writer wrote it for both of them. Ditto for Obama and Patrick.

And don't even begin to look at the "as told to" books, or the ones that were entirely or mostly ghostwritten by someone being paid to produce words for someone who was too busy to produce more than an outline. "Profiles in Courage" comes immediately to mind on the political side, along with books where a ghostwriter is actually thanked in the book (including one by Tim Russert, a journalist).

Much the same applies in politics, with the complication that good ideas have many parents while bad ones have none. Effective phrases become part of the national dialog, whether they are completely true and accurate or not. When Kerry said "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.", it was widely overlooked that Bush had opposed the $87 billion before supporting it. Bush was opposed to paying for the war with current taxes, while Kerry voted against doing it on credit. He lost because he was too inarticulate to point out the Bush flip flop and the media played along with the Rovian spin without bothering to point out the true difference between those two votes. Now we are stuck with politicians who are afraid to ask the American people to actually support the war with, you know, actual money because to do so would be "raising taxes" or "voting against the troops".

Clinton and Obama are playing a similar game today with half truths, which are the same thing as half lies, about each other's position on various issues.

Last week's New Yorker reminded me of the wild mismatch between what people were told to say to get elected and what they actually did after being elected. Roosevelt ran on a balanced budget platform against the spendthrift Hoover, who was running up a deficit to fight the Depression. I don't think that position even lasted until inauguration day. GW Bush ran as an isolationist against the foreign activist Gore (Clinton), who had supported overseas intervention against terrorists in Africa (Blackhawk down) and elsewhere, following the line taken by the Republicans in Congress. That lasted just long enough to let the Cole bombing go unpunished and August warnings be ignored. Was Bush "borrowing" someone else's words before the election, or after? I don't think we know today which of those was the real Bush, or the real Roosevelt.

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