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Was that plagiarism in Obama's State of the Union?

January 27, 2011 |  5:22 am

Democrat president Barack Obama gives his state of the union address to Congress 1-25-11

Writing a major political speech like Tuesday's Obama State of the Union Address is an extremely complex undertaking typically lasting weeks and involving contributions from dozens of people by the end of the prose assembly process when the elected official reads over a late draft and adds his or her own touches for spoken comfort.

We are told that President Obama had a direct hand in crafting the 6,200 or so words that millions watched on nationwide television with the members of Congress as applauding props in a joint session.

One final trick of good speechwriters is to make their written words sound like somebody else's with the vocabulary, cadence and tone of the boss. That's no easy task and one reason Obama's top speechwriter is paid the $172,000 maximum for presidential aides.

Among the numerous working drafts, the alterations and edits for delivery time, policy or political sensitivities, it's easy for nuances or key words to get dropped unnoticed from a speech as it typically goes from hand to hand.

And, of course, such addresses do not contain the kinds of source credits and detailed footnotes that a diligent Barack Obama would have required when he was elected the first black president of the esteemed Harvard Law Review exactly 21 years ago next week.

During his Tuesday evening address to a joint session of Congress Obama cited....

...by name the late Sen. Robert Kennedy as saying, “The future is not a gift. It is an achievement."

However, a number of other passages coming out of the presidential mouth struck a few listeners as sounding vaguely familiar. Talking of the need for improved education, Obama in one prominent line said, "We are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea." Hmm. Turns out, someone else said those same memorable words about the time Obama was editing the law review.

The United States, that previous politician told an American audience, is the "first nation to have been founded on an idea."  But what U.S. Democrat would want to quote Britain's conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on national TV?overview of President Obama's state of the union 1-25-11

Over at the U.S. News site, Alvin Felzenberg, the presidential scholar, has assembled a list of other striking coincidences, parallel constructions and references from the president's 2011 speech. The headline on Felzenberg's piece is carefully phrased: "Obama's State of the Union Was Tantamount to Plagiarism."

Plagiarism is much more serious in the academic world than in the free-for-all world of politics where no patent exists on such common, trite phrases as "The time for action is now!" Or, "With all due respect, my opponent is wrong." Or the ever annoying, "moving forward."

Reporters who've logged hundreds of political speeches over the years are also struck by the amazingly identical nature of certain humorous anecdotes shared with appreciative audiences by self-deprecating politicians about what their precocious children are said to have said to them once.

And, to be honest, politics being the world's second oldest profession, there are likely few words or combinations of words that remain truly original over the milennia.

Two years ago next week during the heat of the Democratic presidential primaries, members of Hillary Clinton's team thoughtfully pointed out to reporters some striking similarities between passages in 2008 Obama speeches and debates and those from the 2006 campaign of fellow Democrat Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts.

At the time a defensive Obama, not particularly prone to saying "oops," claimed that he and friend Patrick "trade ideas all the time." Asked about giving another politician credit, Obama said, "I'm sure I should have," adding that he doubted voters much cared.

Indeed, voters and the media were then soon plunged into the Obama campaign controversy over his 20-year connection with the volatile Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose racist video sermons surfaced, altough Obama claimed no knowledge of such outbursts during his regular attendance.

Plagiarism also figured in the early demise of then-senator, now Vice President Joe Biden's presidential hopes in 1988. His unattributed and widespread lifting of material from British Labor Party Leader Neil Kinnock was exposed, including even biographical details true to Kinnock but not Biden's life.

Those revelations prompted other discoveries of the Delaware senator lifting speech passages from Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey and Biden also admitted flunking one law school course at Syracuse University for plagiarizing five pages of one article for a term paper.

Thus endeth that campaign.**

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: Jim Young / Reuters; Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA.

** A paraphrase of a sentence commonly used to conclude Scripture readings during religious services.

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