Press Box

What Kind of Plagiarist Is Joe Biden?

The unusually creepy kind.

Also in Slate: David Greenberg argued that Joe Biden’s plagiarism shouldn’t be forgotten. Shmuel Rosner examined the “erratic pragmatism” of Biden’s Middle East policy.

Joe Biden’s return as a vice-presidential candidate signals forgiveness—at least from Barack Obama—for having plagiarized a leading British politician during Biden’s campaign for the Democratic Party’s 1988 presidential nomination.

The Biden episode merits revisiting because as acts of plagiarism go, it was spectacular, and because it points to other dicey chapters in his life. To know Biden in full, you must appreciate his parts.

Biden’s puttering campaign for president effectively died on Sept. 13, 1987, when the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd reported that he had pinched major elements of a recent and celebrated speech by Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock. That speech, included in this May 1987 Labor Party broadcast, begins at the 7:23 mark.

But Biden didn’t merely borrow words and phrasings from Kinnock, which is a time-honored practice of candidates and their speechwriters and is almost never regarded as plagiarism. He became Kinnock, as David Greenberg writes today, claiming things about himself and his family that were untrue and that he knew to be untrue.

In his closing remarks at an Aug. 23, 1987, debate at the Iowa State Fair *, Biden said:

I started thinking as I was coming over here, why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university?

Biden then gestured to his wife and continued:

Why is it that my wife who is sitting out there in the audience is the first in her family to ever go to college? Is it because our fathers and mothers were not bright? Is it because I’m the first Biden in a thousand generations to get a college and a graduate degree that I was smarter than the rest?

Kinnock had said:

Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?

Pointing to his wife, Kinnock said:

Why is Glenys the first woman in her family in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? Was it because all our predecessors were thick?

And so on and so on.

Biden quit the campaign before the month was over, erecting the strangest defense as he went out. Most plagiarists claim victimhood: The purloined material accidentally slipped into their notes or personal and professional pressure distracted them. But Biden knew from the beginning that the material and anecdotes were not his.

In a Sept. 23, 1987, MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour appearance, Biden adviser John Marttila defended his candidate by stating that Biden “must have spoken about Kinnock in the past month and a half—I don’t know, 25, 30 times. And he failed to attribute it on two or three occasions. Most regrettably, it was that Iowa television.”

Reporters confirmed that Biden had repeatedly cited Kinnock as the source before abducting the Kinnock persona at the state fair. That didn’t make the abduction any less egregious, though. Or any less weird. For instance, Biden wasn’t the first in his family to attend college, as he claimed, conceding to E.J. Dionne Jr. in the Sept. 18, 1987, Times that ”there are Finnegans, my mother’s family, that went to college.”

Biden had similarly echoed Kinnock by saying that his “ancestors … worked the coal mines of Northeast Pennsylvania and would come up after 12 hours and play football for four hours.” He could produce no such ancestors upon request. The Times’ Dowd also found Biden lifting Kinnock’s “gestures and lyrical Welsh syntax intact,” proof of his intimacy with the source material.

The only practical explanation for Biden’s plagiarism is he guessed that being Kinnock on the stump would be more compelling for his audience than merely citing him. And he was probably right. Anecdotes about how a British politician made a success of himself thanks to Labor Party policies would hardly encourage an American voter to pull the lever for Joe Biden. Biden plagiarized because, like most plagiarists, he was unsatisfied with his own, honest material and decided that the payoff was worth the risk.

Another time-honored defense of plagiarists is that the incident was a one-off. But in Biden’s case, we know that’s not true. As E.J. Dionne Jr. reported in the previously mentioned Times article, he “plagiarized a law review article for a paper he wrote in his first year at law school” at the Syracuse University College of Law. According to a Dec. 1, 1965, report by the law school, five pages of Biden’s 15-page paper were copied without quotation or attribution.

Biden’s defense? He told Dionne—and his professors at Syracuse at the time—that he misunderstood citation and footnoting rules. The Dionne piece is especially rich with other Bidenisms. The candidate accuses other presidential campaigns of digging up the Syracuse law school story, but he does not specify which campaigns engineered this smear.

If you give Biden the benefit of the doubt—and I don’t—you’d expect that such a calamitous “mistake” from his youth would have seared into his mind the importance of keeping his mitts off of other people’s words. That it didn’t speaks terabytes about his character.

We all lie to ourselves about who we are. In my head, I replaced Al Kaline in right field, Jonas Salk in the laboratory, and Keith Richards on guitar. But most of us over the age of 12 keep an editor in our minds to prevent us from speaking those lies. If Biden lies with fluidity about the fundamentals of his life, other discoveries must await. But all will not be lost if the Obama-Biden ticket is victorious: Every administration needs a few good liars.


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Correction, Aug. 26, 2008:This article mistakenly referred to the Iowa State Fair as the Iowa County Fair. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)