Monday, August 25, 2008

Joe and Mo

Twenty-one years ago, Joseph Biden’s presidential ambitions were cut short in part by two news stories by Maureen Dowd suggesting that Biden's famous rhetorical skills were not necessarily his own.

On September 12, 1987, Dowd wrote an article about Biden being excessively inspired by British Labor Party Leader Neil Kinnock:

The Neil Kinnock commercial did not lead to electoral success last May in Britain, but the 10-minute spot of the Labor Party leader's passionate speeches, against a cool soundtrack of Brahms, raised his approval rating by 19 points and became an instant classic.

On this side of the Atlantic, many Presidential campaign strategists of both parties greatly admired the way it portrayed Mr. Kinnock, who subsequently lost to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as a man of character. Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, a Democratic hopeful, was particularly taken with it.

So taken, in fact, that he lifted Mr. Kinnock's closing speech with phrases, gestures and lyrical Welsh syntax intact for his own closing speech at a debate at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 23 - without crediting Mr. Kinnock.

Dowd then compares the two speeches:
Neil Kinnock's commercialJoe Biden's speech
In the commercial, the Briton began, "Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?" Then pointing to his wife in the audience, he continued: "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?"

Senator Biden began his remarks by saying the ideas had come to him spontaneously on the way to the debate. "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?" he said. Then, pointing to his wife, he 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?"
In his speech, Mr. Kinnock, an orator of great eloquence, rhetorically asked why his ancestors, Welsh coal miners, did not get ahead as fast as he. "Did they lack talent?" he asked, in his lilting rhythm. "Those people who could sing and play and recite and write poetry? Those people who could make wonderful beautiful things with their hands? Those people who could dream dreams, see visions? Why didn't they get it? Was it because they were weak? Those people who could work eight hours underground and then come up and play football? Weak?"
Senator Biden's Irish relations, it would seem, were similar, though they seemed to stay underground longer.

"Those same people who read poetry and wrote poetry and taught me how to sing verse?" continued Mr. Biden, whose father was a Chevrolet dealer in Wilmington. "Is it because they didn't work hard? My ancestors, who worked in the coal mines of Northeast Pennsylvania and would come up after 12 hours and play football for four hours?"
A week later, another front page New York Times article by Maureen Dowd detailing Biden’s frequent unattributed borrowing of phrases from Robert F. Kennedy, showing that he could steal from politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. Dowd cleverly positions the plagiarism charges this way:
Senator Biden has given Robert F. Kennedy credit as ''the man who I guess I admire more than anyone else in American politics.'' But Mr. Biden has not always given him credit for the words he used first.
Dowd then gives an example that seems pretty clear cut:
Robert F. Kennedy, 1968Joseph Biden, February 3, 1987
"The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play," Senator Kennedy said. "It does not include the beauty of our poetry, or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.

"It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile, and it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."
"We cannot measure the health of our children, the quality of their education, the joy of their play," he said, after opening his speech by declaring that he wanted to tell the audience "what is on my mind."

"It doesn't measure the beauty of our poetry, the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate, the integrity of our public officials.

"It counts neither our wit nor our wisdom, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country," Mr. Biden continued, to applause. "That bottom line can tell us everything about our lives except that which makes life worthwhile, and it can tell us everything about America except that which makes us proud to be Americans."

Dowd’s primary source for the second story was an aide in the Reagan White House that was also a major RFK groupie.
At the White House, N. Jeffrey Lord, associate director in the office of political affairs, was watching as Senator Biden spoke. A devout Robert Kennedy fan as a youth who keeps a print of the Jamie Wyeth portrait of John Kennedy in his office at the Reagan White House, Mr. Lord had listened to a memorial record of Robert Kennedy's speeches so often that he knew them by heart.
Lord had an axe to grind because he was miffed at the treatment Robert Bork had received in front of Biden’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. When the Kinnock accusations came out and were quickly brushed aside, Lord decided to push the Kennedy plagiarism in to the spot light and the conduit he chose was Maureen Dowd. In his words from an American Spectator article:
I picked up the phone and did what Robert Redford did in that old Three Days of the Condor movie. When all is lost, spill your guts to the New York Times. In my case, I went to then-reporter (and now NYT columnist) Maureen Dowd. We'd never met. She drove Reaganites crazy. But she had been covering Biden, and I liked her writing. So Mo Dowd it was.

Her voice was careful at first. Cautious and skeptical in the way of a liberal reporter getting a call from a Reagan White House type. I explained my tale. Told her of my RFK and JFK-worship as a teenager and how I memorized all those hours of RFK speeches. When I told her that I could prove beyond question that Biden had simply been lifting RFK's words whole cloth she burst out laughing, saying something to the effect that this was just too good to be true. It seems (as I recall this all these years later) that the Biden staff had been irritated by the good Ms. Dowd as well. They had even gone to the point of making her life difficult as she sought to cover the Bork hearings. Maureen would love my records and would promise to return them in the mint condition in which I still had them. Telling her specifically which speech of RFK's had been used, and when and where Biden had done this, I delivered my treasured albums unto the New York Times. And waited.

It didn't take long.

Within days Ms. Dowd had a front page story, appearing on September 16, 1987. It appeared above-the-fold just under the photo of Judge Bork defending himself in front of Biden's Senate Judiciary Committee, flanked by ex-President Gerald Ford and Senator Bob Dole.
Dowd quoted unnamed Democratic sources that were more than willing to use these revelations against Biden:
Members of rival Democratic camps, who did not want to be quoted by name, said the question of Senator Biden's appropriating passages from another's speeches was a legitimate campaign issue. ''The suggestion that the issue is who uncovered the plagiarism is a red herring,'' said one such staff member. ''The core of Joe Biden's credibility is that he is a self-proclaimed and unique visionary orator. It's like finding out General Haig never served in the Army.''
Biden withdrew from the presidential race a week later.

Since that time additional instances of plagiarism came to light including one in law school that resulting in Biden failing and having to retake a course. For the past twenty years Joe has kept his nose clean and has gone from young rising star to elder statesman.

Politics makes for strange bedfellows and even stranger feuds and enemies. With Biden now on the ticket it will be interesting to see how Dowd plays this old run-in from early in their careers.

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