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The Nature of Plagiarism

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Message Steve Denning

Last week, when Hillary Clinton began contrasting her “solutions” to Barack Obama’s “word’s, Obama came back with a crushing rebuttal. “’I have a dream.’ Just words? ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident.’ Just words? ‘All men are created equal.’ Just words? ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Just words?”

Stung by the reversal of her fortunes, Clinton’s spokesman, Howard Wolfson, didn’t dispute the substance of the rebuttal. Instead he alleged a technical foul: plagiarism. Wolfson said that the words were not Obama’s own: they were first uttered by Deval Patrick in a speech he gave running for the governorship of Massachusetts.

The problem with the charge is that plagiarism is not just using someone else’s words. If that’s what plagiarism was, we would all be plagiarists, all the time.

Plagiarism has three elements. First, the words are stolen, without permission, from the original user. Second, the words are used without acknowledgement. And third: the user has an intent to deceive, to pass the words of another as his (or her) own, so as to appear more eloquent.

In Obama’s case, the words were not stolen: they were given. Obama had explicit permission from Patrick to use them, a fact immediately confirmed by Patrick yesterday. As in theft of property, permission from the owner is a complete defense. End of argument.

And there is no indication that Obama had any intent to deceive. On another occasion, he had acknowledged the source of the rhetorical riff. On this case, he says he forgot to do so. There is no pattern of action pointing to deception.

In any event, beware of alleging faults in others. Critics were quick to point out that Clinton is herself a liberal “borrower” of words, having borrowed Obama’s “fired up” line, as well as Edwards’ comparison of immigration enforcement to tracking movies from Blockbuster. Clinton has yet to suggest that she had permission for these borrowings.

Not that this is a real problem either. We don't really want our political speeches clogged up with footnotes and references to sources, like some academic paper.

It’s a pity that the Clinton campaign is spending energy on such irrelevancies, and even more so that the mainstream media is wasting time on them, as though there was any substance at stake.

For Clinton, the real challenge is to make the substantive case what she has to offer as president that is different from and better than what Obama offers.

Clinton’s “solutions versus words” argument is ridiculous on its face, since the “solutions” offered by the Clinton and Obama campaigns are remarkably similar. And obviously, words do matter. The fact that Clinton’s abstract arguments are less inspirational than Obama’s narratives cannot be washed away by denigrating the power of words.

What Clinton brings to the table is greater national and international experience than Obama. There is a real difference between getting things done on the streets of Chicago and getting things done on the national and international stage. It’s the difference between the minor leagues and the major leagues, between college football and the NFL. In the major leagues, things happen faster and more unexpectedly. It’s a whole new level of complexity.

There is no way to prepare for the complexities of the White House. As result, the first year of most presidents—whether Bush, Clinton, Reagan, Carter, or Kennedy—is inevitably a mess, as the new president tries to find the levers of power. Some never find them—Carter, Ford—and others eventually find them but use them for misguided purposes: Bush, Johnson.

What is unique about Clinton is that she actually lived through this experience of finding the levers of power and coping with the complexities of the national and international stage.

So the “experience” argument could be valid, but Clinton needs to make it, not as she has been doing in abstract terms, but rather in telling the stories of what she has learned. What did she learn in the first 100 days of her husband’s presidency? What did she learn from the health care debacle? What did she learn in international affairs?  Unless and until she can tell those stories in a convincing way, it won’t be easy to believe that her experience really means much. Instead, she may be seen as a mere plagiarist of her husband’s incumbency, merely reciting words.

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Stephen Denning is the author of several books on leadership and narrative, including The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (Jossey-Bass, 2007), which was selected by the Financial Times as one of the best (more...)
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