« Having the guts to shut up | Main | You know you're a wonk when ... »

Monday, June 20, 2005

Does Biden's plagiaristic past preempt his presidential prospects?

InstaPundit Glenn Reynolds writes today of Joe Biden's non-coy declaration of his intention to seek the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 2008 (hyperlinks in original):

WITH JOE BIDEN RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT, we're likely to hear more about the rather lame plagiarism scandal that sunk him in 1988.

You can read a defense of Biden in that role, from my book (with Peter Morgan), The Appearance of Impropriety, if you like. I think that Biden was shafted by the Dukakis campaign, with help from the press, and that the whole flap was silly.

Lest you think Prof. Reynolds is a Biden supporter, I must also note that his post goes on to argue that Sen. Biden's candidacy "ought to have been sunk" based on substantive positions he's taken on legislation in the past and his performance as a senator. However, having not only read the chapter excerpt from his and Mr. Morgan's book that Prof. Reynolds links, but having actually bought and read the entire book, I felt semi-qualified to respond to his bit of instapunditry on the specific topic of Sen. Biden's plagiaristic history.


To round out my research before counterposting, I turned to every blogger's best online friend. And in an ironic coincidence, I promptly found one online resource — an opinion piece written by a journalist-pundit whom I like and respect, and with whom I've occasionally traded emails — which appears to have incorporated, without attribution, a one-paragraph description of Sen. Biden's 1988 campaign implosion that appeared in a second online resource (apparently published some years earlier) almost word-for-word.

Was this more or less consequential than Sen. Biden's well-publicized lifting of campaign speech language from British Labor party leader Neil Kinnock and other, previous examples of Sen. Biden's "stressless scholarship"? I admit to a pre-existing bias, but I would still argue that it's substantially less consequential. In all likelihood, my pundit friend had begun his writing by gathering background facts on the internet; perhaps he cut-and-pasted the paragraph into his notes, lost track of the original source, and/or forgot that it was a direct cut-and-paste, rather than his own summarization, when that paragraph made its way into the factual predicate of his own opinion essay. The facts summarized in that paragraph are essentially undisputed; the language used is unremarkable, comprising crisp but not soaring prose. The essay ought to be judged based on the merit of the opinions expressed, and its writer isn't running for president.

And yet: That pundit's reputation and credibility will inevitably affect the way his opinions are received and perceived. His reputation and credibility are in part based upon his record for accuracy and integrity. So yes, he should have included an attribution, or else have been more careful not to lift even this noncontroversial material wholesale. It appears that he was, at a minimum, very sloppy on this occasion. And sloppy may be excusable, but it's still not good.


I agree with a great deal of the Morgan-Reynolds book — a central premise of which is that the more-or-less continuous post-Watergate frenzy over public ethics has unjustly flattened the moral landscape and led to the trivialization of genuinely bad acts. I also agree — and it would be hard for anyone to dispute, I think — that Sen. Biden's 1988 campaign was the victim of the Dukakis campaign's very hardball primary politics. And even had he not been caught in them, Sen. Biden's  bad acts in lifting some moderately well-crafted phrases from Kinnock's campaign speeches into his own, or in lifting five pages from a law review article into his own law school class submission, or his exaggeration of his academic record weren't going to actually win him any elections, or confer any substantial advantage upon him as a politician. Yes, there's a pattern; but it's a pattern of small-scale thefts, not grand larceny. And I emphatically agree with Prof. Reynolds that Sen. Biden's substantive record and political positions more than suffice to make him an unattractive candidate (although in every instance, he's been pandering to a constituency who will almost by definition disagree with that assessment).

Still, I can't quite swallow Prof. Reynolds' near-dismissal in his post today of Sen. Biden's past pattern of plagiarism. Rather, I think that the pattern does indeed speak to Sen. Biden's fitness for high public office. But it's not relevant because it shows that he is irredeemably craven or immoral. No, the real problem with Biden is not the alleged sin but the obvious stupidity it bespoke.

That last sentence I've lifted almost verbatim from the Morgan-Reynolds book (at page 146), by the way. (The "bespoke" is my own; Glenn's rarely that stuffy.) And to make my rhetorical point — here, that Prof. Reynolds himself has previously recognized the same significance of the Biden plagiarism record for which I'm arguing here — I absolutely must include an attribution!


When I include that attribution, a diligent scholar can learn that Messrs. Morgan and Reynolds were, in turn, only quoting — with full and footnoted attribution — a Chicago Tribune column from September 1987 by Jon Margolis entitled "For Joe Biden, as with Hart, It's the Stupidity that Hurts." That diligent scholar will further find that in my near-quote of the sentence in which Morgan and Reynolds quoted Mr. Margolis, I've omitted an important qualifier: The full sentence written by Morgan and Reynolds reads (anally compulsive bracketed comma mine, but double quotation marks and footnote superscript in original):

The real problem with Biden, we were told[,] "is not the alleged sin but the obvious stupidity."21

So in fact, the sentiment I've attributed to Prof. Reynolds — arguably inconsistent with his post today — isn't necessarily attributable to him or to Mr. Morgan, but to Mr. Margolis!

When writing about ideas, and in particular other people's ideas, then, proper attribution can become very important indeed — not just so that credit is given when due, but so that conflations or misstatements can be identified and exposed more readily. When Prof. Reynolds is writing — whether for his InstaPundit blog or his MSNBC column, or for a popular press book, or for a law review article — his intellectual honesty obliges him to compulsive attribution. And I feel the same compulsion to "show my own work" and distinguish it from others' work; as I've written before, I think this instinct and habit is commendably common among bloggers.\*/

I don't expect politicians to necessarily share in that compulsion, much less to adhere meticulously to standards for academic publications. But I, and I think the American public, do insist that presidential-caliber politicians not be consistently, self-destructively stupid in the minor transgressions that we might otherwise forgive.


\*/Then why, you may ask, have I not linked the two online sources I referenced in the beginning of this essay? It's because I'm speculating, and not making an accusation; I could be mistaken; and I've emailed the pundit in question, with a link to this post, to point out the similarities in the language in case he has an explanation that hasn't occurred to me.


UPDATE (Mon Jun 20 @ 5:20pm): The unnamed pundit referenced near the beginning of this essay responded promptly and graciously to my emailed inquiry. He acknowledged the irony not only of his own failure to credit his original source in writing about Biden's plagiarism, but additional irony from the fact that his source was someone with whom he was well acquainted and whom he'd have been very happy to credit. He agrees that he was indeed sloppy with respect to the paragraph in question, and I'm quite certain that his self-chastisement now that it's been brought privately to his attention will prompt him to avoid this particular sin in the future. Given all that and the inconsequential content of this particular paragraph, my own judgment is that no good purpose would be served by my being more specific as to names or providing direct links. If he should ever run for president, however ....

Posted by Beldar at 01:23 PM in Humor, Politics (2006 & earlier) | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to Does Biden's plagiaristic past preempt his presidential prospects? and sent a trackback ping are listed here:


(1) bill made the following comment | Jun 20, 2005 2:40:59 PM | Permalink

I don't think that plagiarism is going to mean anything to 'chia head' and his chances of getting the nomination. The Clinton's probably have a lot more in the closet.

(2) Patterico made the following comment | Jun 20, 2005 5:10:26 PM | Permalink

What you call exaggerating his law school record, I call lying about his law school record.

(3) Beldar made the following comment | Jun 20, 2005 6:03:18 PM | Permalink

From an article by staff writer Frank Clifford in the Los Angeles Times on July 25, 1987, that popped up during my quick Nexis search:

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Delaware Democrat, exacerbated his reputation for volcanic oratory when he turned on a New Hampshire resident who had asked Biden about his law school grades.

"I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do," Biden snapped. Nor did he let it go at that, replying that he was graduated from law school in the top half of his class and suggesting that the questioner was "a heartless technocrat" for caring more about law school grade averages than about leadership abilities.

Biden made his remarks during one of those meet-the-candidate gatherings that do not rate extensive coverage. But a C-Span camera was there, homing in on Biden's mirthless grin as he chewed out the hapless questioner.

That same search turned up another LAT article, this one by staff writer Robert Shogan on September 24, 1987, writing of Biden's withdrawal from the race for the 1988 nomination:

Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. abandoned his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination Wednesday, blaming the "exaggerated shadow" of mistakes that he complained had begun "to obscure the essence of my candidacy." ...

Displaying the oratorical flair that had distinguished his candidacy, Biden said that, although events had left him little choice but to withdraw, he had reached the decision with "incredible reluctance" and with anger at himself "for having put myself in this position of making this choice."

Biden made his announcement just before returning to confirmation hearings for controversial Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork, of which he is chairman — a position that Biden's supporters had hoped would vault him into the forefront of the presidential race.

Those hopes were shattered by disclosures within the last two weeks that Biden had often borrowed speech rhetoric from other politicians at home and abroad, had plagiarized parts of a law school paper and had misrepresented his academic record. ...

In his strongest complaint, he said that he was frustrated by "the environment of presidential politics that makes it so difficult for the American people to measure the whole of Joe Biden and not just the misstatements that I have made."

He cast his decision as a sacrifice of his presidential campaign in order to honor his commitment to defeating the Bork nomination. ...

"There will be many opportunities for me to run for President again," [Biden] said, but not so many to influence the shaping of the court. ...

With Biden, his supposed weakness grew out of suspicions that his approach to campaigning and to the substantive responsibilities of office was tinged with superficiality — that he offered more sizzle than steak, as some critics said. In what is certainly the fundamental irony of his presidential candidacy, those misgivings were grounded directly in what everyone agreed was his greatest political strength — his oratorical skill.

Biden was able to rouse Democratic audiences to enthusiasm in a way none of his rivals, except civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, could match. His good looks, his lithe figure, his Irish charm all combined to provide what American Enterprise Institute analyst Norman Ornstein called "an earthy magnetism" — and the promise of an electricity that the Democratic Party had not been able to offer the nation since the Kennedy brothers.

But it was just this dazzle that invited the suspicion in some quarters that not much lurked beneath the flashing surface. Biden's problem was comparable, as New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo once warned him in a private conversation, to that of a beautiful woman no one will credit with intelligence.

"If you want to be the dumb blonde of the party," Cuomo needled Biden, "the guy who can give you a speech but can't count, I'll be glad to go around the country billing you that way."

Others warned Biden more directly. "You talk too much and you say things without thinking about them," Ornstein, a friend and admirer, told the senator as he was gearing up for his candidacy.

"I know I've got to be more disciplined," Biden replied.

But, as Ornstein said this week: "It's easier to say that than do that. Besides, he probably didn't believe it in his heart."

So what were Biden's actual grades? According to another newspaper story, this one by John Harwood in the St. Petersburg (FL) Times on September 18, 1987:

Despite his mediocre academic performance — Biden flunked two other courses [in addition to the course in which he originally was given an F for plagiarism, but was allowed to retake, upon which he received a B,] and graduated 76th out of the 85 students — he vehemently insisted that "I am a good lawyer," challenging doubters to watch his leadership of the Bork hearings.

All very interesting. Did he deliberately lie about his law school class standing, as Patterico's comment above argues? It's awfully hard to believe that he didn't know at least his approximate class rank. Even if so, however, I think that given all the circumstances, it's more consequential for the stupidity it displayed than its fundamental lack of truthfulness.

(4) Glenn made the following comment | Jun 20, 2005 7:03:17 PM | Permalink

Actually, I would file Biden's comments more under the category of "egomania" instead of "liar, liar pants on fire."

He clearly thinks of himself as a superior intellect, and that egocentrism yields a rather selective memory of past academic achievement. I have known many people who have exaggerated their accomplishments to feed their ravenous self-image, but most of them did not come off as habitual liars, even though such comments clearly meet the technical requirements of a lie.

Biden's plagarism is the kind of thing people rationalize all the time, a kind of "little white lie" if you will. And the argument that this indicates stupidity would seem to fail, and the more likely scenario is that Biden sees himself as superior to others and will go to great (and sometimes even reckless) lengths to demonstrate his intellectual prowess.

In other words, the man's ego is writing checks his intellect simply cannot cash. This leads to reckless embelishment of his accomplishments and a propensity to turn to the work of others when his own efforts seem inadequate to him.

(5) SemiPundit made the following comment | Jun 21, 2005 2:16:25 PM | Permalink

Does anybody know what you call the person who gradates last in class from medical school?

(6) SemiPundit made the following comment | Jun 21, 2005 9:42:28 PM | Permalink


(7) James B. Shearer made the following comment | Jun 21, 2005 10:32:50 PM | Permalink

I think the plagiarism stuff will hurt Biden because it is the sort of thing (like Quayle and potatoe) that the press will never let go of.

I see it as fairly serious myself. As someone said at the time Biden was not just stealing Kinnock's words he was stealing his life. I think this is different from and worse than borrowing a memorable phrase or two without attribution.

As for the law school paper and Biden's "exoneration" I could not make heads or tails of this. It looked to me as if Biden reported the accounts of his law school plagiarism to Delaware as an accusation of professional misconduct. When Delaware decided (not surprisingly as the incident occurred before he was admitted to the bar) that no discipline was warranted Biden claimed this meant he wasn't a plagiarist in the first place. If so I consider this worse than the original offense.

People understand that college kids sometimes do stupid things. Like Bush he should just admit it and not try to defend the indefensible.

(8) Jim D made the following comment | Jun 21, 2005 11:28:51 PM | Permalink

If it helps, Beldar, most Democrats I know think Biden sucks because of his love affair with the credit card industry and perennial uberhawkwankery.

(9) David made the following comment | Jun 22, 2005 6:37:03 AM | Permalink

"People understand that college kids sometimes do stupid things. Like Bush he should just admit it and not try to defend the indefensible."

1.) When I was in grad school, plagiarism was the kiss of death.
2.) It wasn't just as a "college kid"--he hasn't stopped. It's ingrained in his nature to pretend to achievements that are not his. He's a liar, a poltroon, and a buffoon. "Top half" of his class? Barely the lower 12%. "Mistaking" the botton 12% for top 50% and expecting folks to just buy the lie is a mark of abyssmal stupidity and, given his penchent for repeatedly stealing others' work and claiming it as his own, a sign of a fundamental weakness of character that disqualifies him for responsibility as a garbage man, let alone senator or president.

He's a worm, a jerk and an empty suit.

Now that I've completed inventorying his good points...

(10) Khodorkovsky made the following comment | Jun 23, 2005 5:06:19 PM | Permalink

I would be happy to Joe Biden run for president. There is no way this man could win.

(11) MaDr made the following comment | Jun 25, 2005 5:58:06 PM | Permalink

If the job requirements include: pompous ass, blowhard, unwavering partisanship, liar (that's what plagerism is), etc, then Biden is fully capable of the meeting the job requirements.

(12) Ann_Observer made the following comment | Jun 28, 2005 6:40:31 PM | Permalink

Imus loves Biden.

That's the kiss of death.

(13) Southpaw made the following comment | Jun 29, 2005 1:01:59 PM | Permalink

The world will not long remember Biden's lack of academic prowess, but a lot of us are going to remember his almost interruption of Bush's speech last evening. He's in the last throes of his insurgency against Bush - even Old Uncle T and cohorts are keeping their distance. I notice someone on here has commented about his good looks or words to that effect - whatever is the basis for that, huh?!?!

(14) DWPittelli made the following comment | Jul 5, 2005 6:43:42 PM | Permalink

If it were just the "plagiarism" within a political speech I'd say the issue is bogus. After all, almost all politicians use unacknowledged speech-writers, so "plagiarism" in this case is merely about a failure to employ and pay the wordsmith, not actually about falsely claiming another's words or ideas. Biden's other issues are more important, but the Kinnock "plagiarism" gives Biden the opportunity to say the charges are all bogus, and few will know the further details to disagree with him. (Rather like Clinton's people repeatedly refuting one of Starr's 80+ claims of misconduct, so most people thought the charges were, in general, refuted or at least debatable.)

The comments to this entry are closed.