“Obama’s State of the Union Was Tantamount to Plagiarism”

So says U.S. News & World Report columnist Alvin Felzenberg:

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, what can be said of plagiarism? President Obama’s second State of the Union address contained enough recycled ideas and lines lifted from speeches of others to make historians wince. I suppose this is what one does when one not only has nothing new to say, but is required by custom and Constitution to come forth with a report of some kind by a certain time and day.

Had Obama or his writers been considerate enough to have informed listeners of where some of the president’s best lines and offered-up ideas originated, the speech might be remembered for its cutting and pasting of great and not-so-great moments of the past performance of others. After quoting Robert Kennedy early on, Obama tried to have his listeners believe that everything else he said that we might remember were his or his writers’ creations. Had the president submitted the text of his second State of the Union Address in the form of a college term paper, he would have been sent forthwith to the nearest academic dean.

Felzenberg’s examples:

  • Obama’s reference to America as a “light to the world” belongs to Woodrow Wilson.
  • The “American family” theme is similar to Mario Cuomo’s 1993 declaration that New York was a “family.”
  • Obama swiped Margaret Thatcher’s 1991 declaration about the U.S. that “no other nation has been built upon an idea.” 
  • The reference to a “Sputnik Moment” seemed to have originated with Dwight D. Eisenhower.
  • The honoring “ordinary heroes” stuff was derived from Ronald Reagan.
  • And JFK’s statement that “I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation,” pre-dates Obama’s assertion that “I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.”

I really can’t get excited about any of these.  I can’t even get too excited about far clearer cases of word- or idea-appropriation by politicians.  Politicians are not academics, fiction writers, or journalists.  They are politicians, and both great themes (none of which were apparent in Obama’s SOTU speech) and tired clichés (which appeared in abundance) are used by lots of people all the time.  Using this stuff does not strike me as plagiarism at all in the political context. 

Litigators do this kind of swiping all the time, without remorse or citation.  Stopping to explain your source for a compelling theme, analogy, or particular paraphrased statement would in many situations kill the flow of an argument and rob the words of their power.  So if we want to add some sort of authority to the words (“In the words of Ronald Reagan, ‘tear down this wall'”) we do it.  If not, we make them our own.  I don’t see any difference between that and what Obama may have done here.

I do, however, agree with this specific criticism by Alana Goodman, which has merit:

It’s not unusual for politicians to quote or borrow from great historical leaders in speeches. But it’s noteworthy that Obama, who was supposed to be such a phenomenal communicator, is so reliant on the words of others. For all the rhetorical prowess attributed to him during the 2008 election, his speeches have consistently fallen short of public expectations since he’s taken office.

A guy who cannot come up with any of his own themes, seems to have borrowed all of them from everyone else, and who has not been particularly successful in rallying anyone behind his proposals, is probably not a candidate for the office of best communicator ever, as Obama’s supporters continually try to crown him.

Published in: on January 27, 2011 at 3:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

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