The Biden Plagiarism Scandal

Official_portrait_of_Vice_President_Joe_BidenIt has been a difficult year for the candidates when it comes to plagiarism matters. First Barack Obama was accused of plagiarizing from his long-time friend Deval Patrick, then McCain was accused of plagiarizing from Wikipedia and now, just after the first Vice Presidential candidate has been selected, Joe Biden, he finds himself in the middle of a plagiarism controversy.

Of course, this isn’t really the beginning of Biden’s plagiarism controversy, but rather, a continuation of a scandal that began over twenty years ago.

The Biden case is different from both the Obama and the McCain one in several ways, the first of which is that the evidence both for and against is over two decades old, before the era of YouTube, and, in Biden’s case, the accusations already helped to sink one of his earlier presidential campaign.

So what actually happened and what can we learn from it? Here’s what I’ve been able to learn about Mr. Biden and his plagiarism controversies.

Background

Biden’s trouble with the plagiarism began a stump speech in Iowa. At the end of the speech, Biden used a series of phrases that closely mirrored a previous speech by that of British politician Neal Kinnock. Though there are several reports that he had previously used and cited the source of those words, there seems to be a clear understanding that, in this one case, he did not.

The result of this was that his Democratic challenger Michael Dukakis created an attack video splicing together Biden’s speech with that of Kinnocks.

The attack was remarkably effective and can be described as a classic example of “YouTube politics” before the Web even existed. Not only was Biden’s reputation hurt by the initial scandal, reporters from Newsweek also turned up allegations of plagiarism dating back to when he was a student at Syracuse Law School, where he failed and was forced to retake a course due to an allegation of plagiarism.

The end result was that Biden, who was already lagging in the polls, was forced to drop out of the race. Though Biden continued to serve in the Senate, these allegations have stuck with him for pretty much his entire career since then.

In fact, when I first started Plagiarism Today, the most popular blog about plagiarism on the Web wasn’t about content theft or academic dishonesty, but about Joe Biden.

This is why, when I heard that Biden was Obama’s VP pick, I knew immediately that this issue would come up in a very big way.

Biden’s Side of the Story

Back in 1987, Biden called these scandals a “Tempest in a Teapot” saying that he had routinely credited Kinnock for the speech and simply had forgotten to do so during the stump speech from which the tape was made.

Regarding the law school controversy, Biden and his supporters have pointed out that the incident was stricken from his record.

Furthermore, as Biden’s supporters are quick to note, all of the allegations are either 20 or 40 years old. To some, this makes those allegations irrelevant in the current election and, accordingly, should be dropped.

However, I am not so quick to dismiss these allegations. Simply because they are old does not mean that they are not worth a closer look. Unfortunately, a closer look is very tough to get.

My Analysis

Biden’s case is different from both the Obama and McCain scandals for two reasons:

  1. He has admitted to using Kinnock’s words without permission, it is a question of whether he had previously attributed them and intended to do so in the speech in question.
  2. We have at least one allegation of plagiarism that withstood some scrutiny in an academic environment.

Unfortunately, the age of the allegations have made it very difficult to find actual copy from the speeches. After multiple searches, I was only able to find one pair of comparison quotes.

First is Kinnock:

Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? Was it because our predecessors were thick? Was it because they were weak, those people who worked eight hours underground and then come up and play football, weak? It was because there was no platform upon which they could stand.

Now Biden:

Why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family to ever go to a university? Was 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 up after 12 hours and play football for four hours? It’s because they didn’t have a platform upon which to stand.

As you can see in the highlighted passages, there are some very strong similarities between the two speeches. Though the theme of coming up from humble hard-working roots is a common one among politicians the world over, the details about working for hours in a coal mine and then playing football are, indeed, suspicious.

However, Biden has never denied that he paraphrased Kinnock’s speech. Rather, according to him, it was a simple mistake, one where he had repeatedly attributed the speech time and time again but failed to do so one time.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to confirm that, though a recent article in the Chicago Tribune seems to vouch for that perspective.

Indeed, it is true that candidates routinely give the same or similar speeches over and over again and it is possible to omit or add things to them over time. Still, there is little doubt that forgetting attribution is a potentially very serious blunder but, as the Obama case showed, it is not always a campaign-ender, especially when the “victimized” party gave permission.

The law school allegations are, unfortunately, older, tricker to analyze and potentially much more severe, without the actual samples in front of me I can only trust the verdict that the school came down with (though I know from recent experience such rulings are often misguided).

However, according to a New York Times article from the era, the controversy involved over five pages of copy in a 15-page paper. Biden, however, plead ignorance saying he did not know how he was supposed to properly cite his sources.

Pleading his case to stay in the school, Biden said that “My intent was not to deceive anyone. For if it were, I would not have been so blatant,” and that, “If I had intended to cheat, would I have been so stupid?”

The end result of both cases is that Biden has effectively admitted to the copying but has claimed that both cases were accidental.

The Accidental Argument

In my experience with plagiarism the vast majority of claims to have accidentally plagiarized are either outright lies or a sign of someone with very little understanding or respect for other people’s work.

However, in the case of his speech, Biden actually seems to have a strong case here. If it is true that he had historically attributed his quotes, the fact he failed to do so in one speech should not be alarming. If it had become a pattern over multiple speeches, I would be much more concerned.

In the end, the plagiarized speech seems to be a likely accident and, by itself, probably is not worth discrediting Biden.

The law school case, on the other hand, is a bit more dubious. Copying approximately five pages of material with only one foot note and pleading ignorance seems to be a bit of a stretch. Most academic plagiarism cases involve significantly less copied material and, generally, carries far more severe consequences.

Please note that this is not a personal opinion on what should have happened to Senator Biden, just an observation about what I have seen in recent years.

Personally though, as offended as I am about plagiarism, it would be fairly easy for me to dismiss either case of alleged plagiarism by itself. However, it is a bit harder to swallow both at the same time.

This difficulty is made worse by the fact that he has also been accused of lifting speeches from other sources, including Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. Though I have not been able to find examples of those alleged infringements, the article linked above claims that the Kennedy case involves over “four sentences” of materials.

The bottom line with Biden is that he has admitted to using other people’s words without attribution many different times and, in each case, has attempted to explain it away. Whether you believe those explainations or not, I’m willing to wager, most likely stem as much from your political viewpoint as it does your intellectual one.

A Second Opinion

A close friend of and colleague of mine Dr. John Lesko of Saginaw Valley State University not only runs Plagiary, the only scholarly journal on the topic of plagiarism, but also Famous Plagiarists, a site dedicated to chronicling the plagiarisms of the well-known.

Dr. Lesko has a very thorough write-up on Senator Biden. At the head of it, he give Biden a “Threat Level” of “Red: Severe Risk”, which is the highest level of risk that the site can award.

This is higher in standing than other well-known plagiarists including Kaavya Viswanathan and on par with Jayson Blair.

Though these “threat levels” were never intended to be taken as true fact and are intended to be a bit humorous, it is interesting to see that one of the world’s foremost experts of plagiarism feels that Biden is such a serious threat.

Unfortunately for Biden, I find it very hard to disagree with Dr. Lesko. Though I may not take it to the extreme he did, I have to agree with Dr. Lesko that this is very different from the Obama and McCain cases.

In fact, at this time, Famous Plagiarists doesn’t even have a section on either of the two presidental front-runners, just one of their VP candidates.

Conclusions

As I’ve said before, I am very wary of politics-based plagiarism scandals. They are, almost always, brought to light not in the best interest of the author or artist, but of the opposing political side.

With Biden, this is no different. Republicans are moving to take this issue front and center while Biden’s supporters are moving to write it off as a fabrication. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between.

However, it is much more difficult for me to dismiss Biden’s case than it is Obama’s or McCain’s. The repetition, the severity and the excuses do not sit well with me.

The one thing Biden does have going for him is that the allegations are old. The law school incident took place in the sixties and the latest one in the late eighties. Nothing has come up in the time since then that I have been able to find.

I don’t think the allegations of plagiarism should prevent Biden from being taken seriously as a VP candidate nor should it distract from the other issues and debates that are much more important in this election. As with Dr. Martin Luther King, plagiarism allegations, on their own, should not distract from other parts of his legacy.

Still, it is clear that these allegations are different than the ones that were thrown at either Obama or McCain. These are definitely more serious and have already stuck enough once to help end a campaign of his.

Once again, I find myself pleading that plagiarism will not be a distraction issue in this campaign, however, once I heard that Biden was Obama’s choice for VP, I knew instantly that it would not the case.

Plagiarism is now front and center in presidential politics. Unfortunately, I don’t see that helping victims of plagiarism nor do I see it helping advance any of the other issues that are on the table this election.

Related Links

  • The Slate (Feels that the matter should not be forgotten)
  • Newsbusters (A thorough overview of Biden’s history with a comparison to his Wikipedia entry)
  • The Huffington Post (A Supporting View of the Matter)
  • Media Matters (A look back at the media coverage of Biden’s downfall)
  • The Hoosier Pundit (An accusation of plagiarism over Obama’s logo, not convincing to me)
  • Lame Cherry (Accusations of plagiarism on the Senate floor)

Further Discussion

  • What are your thoughts on the accusations against Biden?
  • Do accusations of plagiarism cause you to think less of a political candidate?
  • Would you change your vote based upon a plagiarism allegation?
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