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Who Said That?

September 18, 1987

Does Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Judiciary Committee and aspirant to the presidency, have something of an identity problem? As the Delaware Democrat campaigns for his party's nomination, it's not always clear just whose words he may be using to express his deepest thoughts and describe his prettiest dreams. One day he may pass off as his own something once said by John or Robert Kennedy. On another he will use unattributed quotes from Hubert Humphrey. Yet again he may borrow without credit from a speech by Neil Kinnock, leader of the British Labor Party. While it may be true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (Charles Caleb Colton), it's no less the case that all good things which exist are the fruits of originality (John Stuart Mill). Not to put too fine a point on it (Cervantes), Biden isn't being very original.

Granted, anything committed to paper that is worth repeating is always fair game for intellectual kleptomania. Writers began filching each other's ideas and phrases the moment the second human became literate, and politicians, from the Pharaohs on, have not hesitated to fob off as their own whatever pleasing words caught their eye. In our own time, though, the unwritten rules of the political game do seem to suggest that fair credit be given when someone else's words are repeated. That's so praise for eloquence won't be given where it hasn't been earned. It's also to avoid the embarrassment of being nailed as a plagiarist.

When Neil Kinnock told the people of Britain that he was the first member of his family in a thousand generations to attend college, he was trying to describe--with considerable hyperbole--a degree of social progress. When Joe Biden told an audience that the thought had just come to him that he was the first member of his family in a thousand generations to attend college, he was being a copycat. Worse yet, he was a copycat who put on airs by seeming to imply, like Kinnock, an ability to trace his genealogy back to the Ice Age.

Biden waves away the controversy over his appropriation of the words of others. It is, he suggests, much ado about nothing (Shakespeare), or a storm in a teapot (Cicero), created by his political enemies. In the future, though, he promises to take much greater care in citing his sources. That is wise, since the cautious seldom err (Confucius). Besides, it's always better to be safe than sorry (Mrs. Alexander, our second-grade teacher).

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