I moved to New Orleans in the winter of 2001, nearly 20 years ago. Though I’ve lived here nearly all of my adult life, I grew up in Irmo, SC, a modest town of 12,000 that sits about 12 miles northwest of the state’s capital, Columbia.
It’s a quiet suburban town, not too different from many others in the south and not exactly known for being at the forefront of plagiarism news. However, this week it is as The State paper has alleged that the town’s new mayor, Barry Walker, plagiarized portions of his inaugural address.
I have to admit, even though I’ve been running this site since 2005 and have seen many wild stories, I am still very surprised to see the name of Irmo come across my feed.
But that said and my personal attachment aside, the story is a very interesting one and a cautionary tale about plagiarism in politics and why leaders (both elected and aspiring) need to be careful with whose words they use.
It can, as in this case, detract from what should have been one of the highlights of his career and turn an easy victory into a first scandal.
The Story So Far
In November, Barry Walker Sr. defeated two other contenders to become the new mayor of Irmo. He was sworn into office on December 3rd and, afterward, gave his inaugural address.
According to The State, Walker’s address lifted large amounts of content from four other mayoral inaugurations. Those include Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, Elyria, Ohio Mayor Holly Brinda, Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.
According to the paper’s analysis, approximately half of the speech was lifted nearly word-from word from those four sources. For example, Walker said:
As I look around the room, I’m reminded about what makes our town great, and it’s clearly you, the people. For you are truly a kaleidoscope of white, black, brown, young, old, middle-aged, white-collar, blue-collar, liberal, conservatives, rich, poor and everything in between. Our diversity is our greatest strength.Barry Walker Sr. – 2019
Meanwhile, Brinda, in her speech, said this:
“As I look around, I’m reminded about what makes our city great — and it’s clearly our people. We are truly a kaleidoscope of white, black, brown, old, young, middle aged, white collar, blue collar, liberals, conservatives, rich, poor and everything in between. Our diversity is our greatest strength.”Holly Brinda – 2011
The paper highlights dozens of other passages like this and the full text of the speech, which is embedded in the original article, shows that about half of the speech is taken from these sources.
Walker, for his part, has denied committing plagiarism. He even denied reading the other speeches in the course of his research and that he wrote the entire speech himself, calling the similarities “coincidences.” However, counterintuitively, he also claims to have gotten permission to use Denver’s Michael Hancock’s words.
He’s also said that he is “unfamiliar” with how to attribute political speeches. He adds, “I apologize to anybody who I need to apologize too.”
However, despite the media coverage and mixed response to the allegations, very little is being made of it at this time. The three members of the city council have said that the address is minor when compared to all of the other things Walker has done during his first week in office.
“I think we ought to give him the mulligan on this,” said Irmo mayor pro-tem Kathy Condom, “Let’s let him try to be mayor. It’s going to be hard enough anyway, and I think he’s off to a good start. I’m sorry this happened but we’re doing a lot of good things.”
In the end, the story is likely to be nothing more than a footnote in Walker’s political career. However, it’s still an interesting cautionary tale. After all, this was supposed to be Walker’s victory lap, not a time for him to address issues of plagiarism.
Analysis of the Case
To be clear, there is no doubt that Walker plagiarized. The amount of overlap combined with the sources of that overlap is just too much to ignore or play down. Walker, or someone working with him on that speech, clearly used the words of other mayors at their inaugurations and modified them to fit his particular situation.
He should not have done it, he should apologize directly for it and he should definitely not do it again.
That said, what I find most worrying about this story isn’t so much the plagiarism itself, but rather, Walker’s response to it.
When Walker says that he was unfamiliar with the rules of citation in a political speech, I fully believe it. Though he’s been on the Irmo Town Council for 15 years, this is by far the biggest stage he’s been on and he’s working without the support of a large campaign or team. He may simply have been unaware that he crossed boundaries.
That’s believable, as I discussed in the Melanie Trump story, the issues around attribution in speeches are very thorny. It’s not a medium made for attribution and the rules often differ based on audience expectation and the exact material involved.
For example, Walker inquired about Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have a Dream speech. If he used lines from that it would not likely be plagiarism, even without attribution. The reason is that there is a reasonable expectation that the listeners will be familiar with that speech and recognize it as a reference and homage, not an attempt to copy. However, there’s no reason to think residents of Irmo, SC would be familiar with mayoral addresses from Denver, Boston and elsewhere.
So, given the complications, if Walker had apologized for the plagiarism, admitted he was new at this and was still learning some of the rules, all probably would have been forgiven. Instead, he’s denied the plagiarism and call the similarities coincidence. That argument simply doesn’t stand up when you look at the evidence. Coincidence, simply put, cannot explain these overlaps.
The idea of a relative political novice making mistakes in writing and attributing a speech is not horribly worrisome to me. Lying about it afterward, even in the face of reasonably clear evidence, is much more so.
Just as with the Melania Trump case, much of the issue isn’t just the actual plagiarism, but the response to it. In Trump’s case, she previously had claimed to written the speech with as little help as possible but the campaign backtracked after the plagiarism was discovered and claimed she had a team of writers.
As bad as plagiarism is, it’s often how politicians handle it that makes it that much worse. That seems to be true here as well.
In the end, I have to agree with the Irmo Town Council and others dealing with this case. It was a mistake, I would even say a bad one, but one that can be pinned on inexperience with writing these kinds of speeches.
Still, it would be easier to say that if Walker would apologize for what happened and promise to do better in his future speeches. As the new mayor of Irmo, he’s going to be giving a lot of them, far more than he did as a councilperson, and it’s important that he learns from this.
Because, if it happens again, it can no longer be attributed to a mistake or to inexperience. At that point, it becomes either malice or negligence. Those, in turn, are much more difficult to write off.
Still, the main takeaway from this, right now at least, is that plagiarism in his speech robbed Walker of what should have been his brightest moment as a politician. His inauguration as mayor should have been the highlight of his career. Instead, it became his first scandal.
This is a reminder to other politicians, large and small, to be careful whose words you use when giving your speeches. As Walker found out, plagiarism is one of the fastest ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.