Hillary Clinton has accused Barack Obama of “plagiarism” for lifting several lines of a speech from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. Obama’s defense is that Patrick is a friend who himself had urged Obama to use the passage—which, ironically enough, quoted some classic American speeches to show that inspiring oratory cannot be dismissed as “just words.” But Obama could have mounted a different defense: that in appropriating another’s words, he was following a time-honored political tradition. Because some of the greatest oratorical flourishes in American history—including an FDR quote cited by Obama/Patrick—did not necessarily spring from the minds of the people who made them famous.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Stirring words from Abraham Lincoln in 1858—and also from the New Testament: “If a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25). When Franklin Roosevelt declared in 1933 that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he neglected to mention Henry David Thoreau, who in 1852 observed that “nothing is so much to be feared as fear.” And when John Kennedy urged Americans in 1961 to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” he may have been channeling Oliver Wendell Holmes, who in an 1884 Memorial Day address said it was time to recall “what our country had done for us, and to ask what we can do for our country.” All this brings to mind a line attributed to Albert Einstein (though who knows where he got it): “The secret to creativity,” Einstein said, “is knowing how to hide your sources.” In the age of YouTube and Google, unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. -Eric Effron