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What's in a Word?

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Not much, in my experience, if you're a presidential candidate. The speechwriter gives the candidate the speech for the next stop on the flight. He marks it up, or not, and out come the words, like magic. Original means he's never said it before. Usually he has, albeit in a different way. Original doesn't mean he wrote it, but that he's the first one to say it.

So who cares?

By the standards of modern campaigns, Barack Obama is the last person in the world you'd expect to be accused of being a plagiarist. I mean, here's a guy who actually works on his own stuff, has placed his own pen to paper in the form of two bestsellers and reportedly comes up with many of his own lines. Himself. So what gives?

What gives is this is politics, and in politics, copying lines from someone else, even if it's only the result of having the same writer or handler, can be deadly if it goes to your character.

Just ask Joe Biden. He got knocked out of the presidential race in 1987 by the notorious "Biden tape," which showed British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock and Sen. Biden using the same phrases to describe their boyhoods and come-from-nothing paths to leadership. One front-page New York Times story and one Des Moines Register story later, and Biden was history.

Or ask me, for that matter. I got my job as the manager of the Dukakis campaign in September of 1987 because then-Gov. Dukakis swore up and down that no one from his campaign could possibly have played any role in the dastardly deed of making and distributing that tape -- hardly dastardly at all, by my lights -- and then was forced to eat his words and fire my predecessor, whose fingerprints were, figuratively speaking, all over the tape.

Cut to 20 years later, and the Clinton campaign doesn't even bother to use a third party to charge Obama with the crime for which Biden was beheaded. Why bother? Howard Wolfson, the Clinton communications director who raised the charges against Obama, isn't risking his job in doing so; he's doing his job.

David Axelrod, the extraordinarily smart strategist who has been with Obama since the beginning, was also Deval Patrick's strategist in his run for governor of Massachusetts. Maybe the lines are his. Who cares?

That's really the only question. Does anyone care? The charges of plagiarism hurt Biden 20 years ago because, with 20 fewer years of foreign policy experience than he has today, there were questions about his depth and gravitas as a candidate, whether he was just a pretty face or a serious leader. So the words, coupled with some overstatement on his resume at the same time, hurt grievously.

In Obama's case, the concern is, or should be, different. Does anyone really doubt that Obama is a skilled rhetorician? They'd have to be nuts. The real question is whether there's more to his candidacy than that. It's not the focus on the borrowed words but the focus on words themselves that makes this an appealing target for the Clintons.

The real comparison with Deval Patrick, the one that could hurt Obama, is the one people in Boston have been drawing for some time between two inspirational candidates who talk big change, but then, as in the case of Patrick, face the hard light of reality when they win. Deval had a rough first few months in office, and while he's now settled in, his governorship is, according to many observers, not so different than those of his predecessors, who did not promise major change. He's fighting for casinos, not a revolution.

Indeed, a number of people have been circulating articles and arguments that one of the big reasons Obama lost Massachusetts handily, notwithstanding his endorsement by every living legend in the state, was because Democrats there are disappointed with the last candidate who promised change, Gov. Patrick. That's the comparison worthy of examination, and it's based on actions, not words.

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