Typically, when I am talking about a political plagiarism scandal, I am talking about them in the run up to an election, not after a politician has already left the limelight. For example, during the 2008 Presidential campaign, Barack Obama, John McCain and Joe Biden all faced allegations of plagiarism.
However, Huffington Post author Ryan Grim recently posted a piece accusing former President George W. Bush of plagiarism in his new memoir “Decision Points”. According to Grim, Bush and his team of writers and researchers, lifted significant portions of other non-fiction works in creating the memoir, including books his administration had disputed the accuracy of.
As is customary in this case, I’ve decided to take a look at the allegations and try to what is being said and if they hold water. However, this case is not as straightforward as many of the others as there are over a dozen passages that are being held up as plagiarized.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the case and the actual passages that are being held up as plagiarized and see what really happened.
Reasons to be Doubtful
Whenever I start discussing any plagiarism involving a political figure, I am instantly doubtful of the severity or the accuracy of the claims. The reason is that plagiarism is far too often used in politics in mudslinging and is tossed on the slightest whim not because the person plagiarized, but because it’s a way to attack one’s character.
As such, when I deal with these cases, i’m careful not to grind any political axes. Even if one disagrees with my findings, I’ve tried to take an even keel with all the cases I’ve looked at.
However, this case is especially interesting because the allegations come from the Huffington Post, a notoriously liberal site, against a very conservative and controversial President who is writing an equally controversial memoir. To make matters worse, the article seems to attack the book’s quality as much as it attacks it for plagiarism, making me want to analyze it even deeper for substance.
Still, just because an allegation of plagiarism came from a political opponent in a heated manner doesn’t mean it can’t be valid. After all, opponents are the one with the motivation to check for such things. However, it does mean that the claims need some independent verification.
The Content of the Allegation
Looking through the fifteen separate claims, it becomes pretty quickly clear that Bush is being accused of lifting, almost exclusively, quotes that other people said to him from his time as President.
Immediately that makes any plagiarism analysis almost impossible. If we assume that all the quotes were accurate and were said to the President, then he at least had the possibility to recall them either from his memory or his notes. Though it is almost impossible to remember everything said over an eight year period, he at least had the ability to recall everything without involving uncited sources.
And the quotes themselves seem to be somewhat hit and miss. Still, at least a few of the quotes do seem to carry a great deal of weight, such as the first one involving Hamid Karzai where Bush quotes Karzai from his inauguration even though Bush himself was not in attendance.
Another is the eighth, which delves into the first cabinet meeting after the 9/11 attacks. Bush’s word choice, in places, seems to match closely Bob Woodwards “Bush at War” though little seems to be taken verbatim. Another is the fourteenth, where Bush adds an ellipse to his own quote and his quote has a great deal of verbatim copying from the same book.
However, some of the allegations are outright baffling. For example, the sixth, where Bush is accused of lifting from Time Magazine on an article abou Scooter Libby’s pardon, bears almost no resemblance to the original quote. The only similarity being Cheney’s reference to “Leaving a man on the battlefield” a quote Cheney apparently used a great deal during that time.
Then there are passages like the thirteenth where the difference is that Bush added material to the quote that was not in the original, making it unlikely he copied the content from the suspected source. Also, there are passages such as the eleventh, twelfth, and fifteenth where the copied passages were so short as to be meaningless.
In short, of the fifteen alleged copied passages, only two (possibly three) carry any significant weight at all and, of those, there certainly isn’t enough evidence to prove that Bush plagiarized accounts of events he was present for.
The only one that I would want to investigate much farther is the first one, the one involving Karzai, to see if the passage was taken out of context and if Bush was not trying to make it appear that he was present. The same goes for the twelfth where, despite the short quote, Bush is accused of quoting McCain as if they were talking with each other, not McCain talking to reporters.
All in all, the evidence presented just doesn’t sustain the accusation that Bush “Lifted from advisers’ books” in creating his memoirs and certainly not that he did so maliciously. It may be true, but the evidence presented does not sustain that given the circumstances.
No matter what one may think of Bush as a President or his memoir as a book, it’s pretty clear to me that the allegations of plagiarism, especially as strongly as they were phrased, were meant more as an attack on him politically and less due to interest in plagiarism.
While there may be room for improvement in citations, especially considering he does admit to having turned to other reports and to research to help him make sure his memoir was accurate, calling it a plagiarized work seems, to me, to be a huge stretch.
When you consider that the “plagiarized” passages are almost all quotes that he said or had said in his presence, the bar for the evidence has to be very high and these passages just don’t meet it, especially since so many of the alleged lifts don’t even stand up individually.
To make matters worse, Bush was likely in something of a catch-22 here. If he the quotes were different from the previous reports, many would wonder if he had been lying or misleading the public in his book. However, if they are the same or very close, he’s accused of plagiarizing.
In short, there’s no solid evidence of plagiarism within these passages and Bush would have likely faced sharp criticisms and allegations of dishonesty no matter what was said.
All in all, it’s just another example of plagiarism being used to attack a politician and not address the actual issue of plagiarism in print and online.