Plagiarism in the SOTU?

posted at 10:55 am on January 27, 2011 by Ed Morrissey

US News’ Alvin Felzenberg says those who listened to the State of the Union speech on Tuesday night can be forgiven for thinking they’ve heard it before — and not just because it turned out to be yet another presidential grocery list of “investments,” AKA government spending.  The lack of originality runs deeper than that, Felzenberg claims; he calls it “tantamount to plagiarism.”  And the close inspection of the speech Felzenberg supplies provides some evidence for the accusation:

After quoting Robert Kennedy early on, Obama tried to have his listeners believe that everything else he said that we might remember were his or his writers’ creations. Had the president submitted the text of his second State of the Union Address in the form of a college term paper, he would have been sent forthwith to the nearest academic dean.

Normally, direct quotes require either footnotes or attribution in the text.  Politicians usually love to invoke lofty figures from history in order to bolster their own credibility on an argument, even if they provide the quote out of context or tweak it to their own purposes.  Obama did cite Robert Kennedy, so he clearly understands this rhetorical device.  As a former academic, Obama should also understand the need to cite his sources.

However, in the political sense, one has to show the intent to lift phrases and slogans in order to make the accusation stick.  It stuck to Joe Biden in 1987 because Biden not only lifted entire blocks from British politician Neil Kinnock’s speeches, he even lifted part of Kinnock’s life story along with it, making it very difficult to argue that Biden didn’t know what he was doing.  Using the slogan “winning the future” was more of an amateurish bungle, and one not mentioned in this essay; no one would believe that Obama would intentionally plagiarize Newt Gingrich, of all people.

Did Obama give a plagiarized speech?  Let’s run these down in the order Felzenberg gives them.

  • Early in his address, Obama said that he wanted the nation he leads to be a “light to the world.” The last president who set such a mission for the nation he led, and in those exact words, was Woodrow Wilson.

Well, maybe that’s plagiarism, but it’s more likely a lack of research.  Obama would presumably have no trouble invoking Wilson in a speech.  “Light to the world” is a generic enough slogan to have resulted in an inadvertent echo of Wilson, and given the lack of research evident over the last two years in this White House, seems to be the same kind of amateurish stumble at worst.

  • Obama’s concept of the “American family” may well have had its origins in the first State of the State address New York Governor Mario Cuomo delivered in 1983. Cuomo proclaimed the state of New York as a “family.” He also talked about multiple partnerships, both public and private.

This one’s a real stretch.  Using the word “family” to describe either a state or national community is hardly a concept that could be owned and then plagiarized.

  • The British Prime Minister told her American audience that the United States was the “first nation to have been founded on an idea.” It took the president a few additional words to get this idea across.

If Obama is guilty of something close to plagiarism on this point, then so is practically everyone else in politics, especially in the Tea Party.  I’m not sure Thatcher was original in this observation, either; it sounds like something de Tocqueville might have written.  Again, Obama would have done well to attribute this explicitly to Thatcher in his speech, but it was hardly necessary — and as Felzenberg notes, Obama didn’t directly quote Thatcher anyway.

  • Obama received his most sustained applause when he said, “I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.” Leaving aside the faulty grammar (people change places with people, not with nations), the poaching from John F. Kennedy’s immortal inaugural address was obvious enough for the most historical of Obama’s listeners to notice. (“I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation.”) That Obama could utter almost identical words days after paying tribute to Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of the delivery of that famous speech and not making reference to it suggests a self-absorption rare even among presidents.

Paraphrasing is not plagiarism.  The sentence is badly written, but again, the source material claimed hardly merits ownership in any real sense anyway.  JFK didn’t originate the concept of “Ask not what your country can do for you,” for instance; he wasn’t even the first President to use the concept.  Warren G. Harding once said, “[W]e must have a citizenship less concerned about what the government can do for it, and more anxious about what it can do for the nation.” [Dictionary of Misinformation, Thomas Burnam, page 11.]  Kennedy rewrote it with a superior rhetorical device (“Ask not”), which is why the quote sticks with Kennedy.  “I wouldn’t trade places with [blank]” is a concept far older than any of us, and highly generic.

Nothing Felzenberg offers comes even close to plagiarism.  He would be on much firmer ground to claim that the speech was filled with clichés, poorly written, and overall rather dull.  That makes it mediocre at best, which might cause a grad student to get sent to the dean anyway, but not on grounds of plagiarism.

Eric Ostermeier has an interesting observation about the speech, though — it nearly set a record for lowest grade reading level since FDR:

Although praised by many for the tone he struck in delivering his 2011 State of the Union address, many conservatives criticized Barack Obama’s speech for being high on rhetoric and short on substance.

As it turns out, Obama’s speech was historically short – both in sentence structure and the words he used.

Last year, Smart Politics calculated that Obama’s debut State of the Union Address tallied one of the lowest Flesch-Kincaid scores in modern political history, by constructing his speech with sentences that were approximately 20 percent shorter in length than the nearly 70 oral addresses given since Franklin Roosevelt.

The Flesch-Kincaid test is designed to assess the readability level of written text, with a formula that translates the score to a U.S. grade level. Longer sentences and sentences utilizing words with more syllables produce higher scores. Shorter sentences and sentences incorporating more monosyllabic words yield lower scores.

But Tuesday evening’s address beat even that.

A Smart Politics analysis of 69 orally delivered State of the Union Addresses since the mid-1930s finds the text of Obama’s speech to have notched the second lowest score on the Flesch-Kincaid readability test recorded by a U.S. President.

The final grade reading level of the speech was 8.1, a rather condescending target point for a Presidential address.  Ironically, Obama talked about education more than any other topic in the speech.


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But Biden is a plagiarist, so.

fossten on January 27, 2011 at 10:56 AM

When everything’s been said already, how can you not plagiarize?!

Shy Guy on January 27, 2011 at 10:58 AM

I thought the whole thing was plagiaized from his previous two SOTU speeches.

And look how effective they were.

profitsbeard on January 27, 2011 at 10:59 AM

When everything’s been said already, how can you not plagiarize?!

Shy Guy on January 27, 2011 at 10:58 AM

What an original thought.

profitsbeard on January 27, 2011 at 11:00 AM

Homage a la the MLKjr. famous dream quote w/o attributed original source.

As if attributing one’s source impairs the message. It’s an insult to the audience, for the speaker to presume the audience is just too dumb. And obviously, the plagiarist is proving his own lack of respect for himself, the message, the original source. “Words, just words.”

maverick muse on January 27, 2011 at 11:01 AM

All leftys sound the same to me.

flyfisher on January 27, 2011 at 11:01 AM

His speech was uninspired and uninspiring bullsh!t. I’m happy to leave it at that. Arguing about plagiarism kinda misses the point.

SKYFOX on January 27, 2011 at 11:02 AM

Ed, aren’t there enough idiots out there on the left to be debunked? Why are you taking the time to critique somebody who was critical of Obama? Trying to shore up your moderate street cred or something?

fossten on January 27, 2011 at 11:04 AM

As a former academic, Obama should also understand the need to cite his sources.

So Obama and Obama’s entourage claim, and Ed Morrissey presumes.

Cite the sources, Ed. Oops, no transcripts and no term papers, thesis or dissertation.

maverick muse on January 27, 2011 at 11:04 AM

Now, does Lady Antebellum’s “Need you Now” sound like that Alan Parsons Project song or not?

YYZ on January 27, 2011 at 11:05 AM

wtf?

unseen on January 27, 2011 at 11:07 AM

His speech was uninspired and uninspiring bullsh!t. I’m happy to leave it at that. Arguing about plagiarism kinda misses the point.

Good point. If he’d plagiarized me I’d have just as soon avoided getting credited for it. I’m with Conrad Black, who describes it as a groaning farrago of clichés and unlikely undertakings.

Drained Brain on January 27, 2011 at 11:09 AM

Didn’t the press want us to think that Obama wrote this speech? Picture after picture was released of Obama with his speech writers working on the speech.

Sue on January 27, 2011 at 11:09 AM

Plagiarism; probably not…
Desperation; probably so…

Keemo on January 27, 2011 at 11:10 AM

… 69 orally delivered …

Did someone plagiarize Deep Throat?

Blake on January 27, 2011 at 11:11 AM

Ed, aren’t there enough idiots out there on the left to be debunked? Why are you taking the time to critique somebody who was critical of Obama? Trying to shore up your moderate street cred or something?

fossten on January 27, 2011 at 11:04 AM

Probably so people will stop sending him a “tip” about SOTU plagiarism.

The idea of plagiarizing cliches is moronic. “Light for the world?” “American family?” “Founded on an idea?” These are all so common.

And boring.

Abby Adams on January 27, 2011 at 11:12 AM

Years ago, one of Reagan’s speechwriters lifted a line from one of my cartoons for a speech in which Reagan used it as a laugh line of his own. I wouldn’t have known about it except the speechwriter later told me about it. I was flattered.

cartooner on January 27, 2011 at 11:13 AM

Didn’t Newt write a book called “Winning the Future”?

BKeyser on January 27, 2011 at 11:13 AM

wtf?

unseen on January 27, 2011 at 11:07 AM

I just knew someone would be me to that, in a thread about Obama plagiarism.

MNHawk on January 27, 2011 at 11:14 AM

Ed, aren’t there enough idiots out there on the left to be debunked? Why are you taking the time to critique somebody who was critical of Obama? Trying to shore up your moderate street cred or something?

fossten on January 27, 2011 at 11:04 AM

It’s called intellectual honesty. If we can’t stand on a foundation of integrity and honesty, then what’s the point?

nukemhill on January 27, 2011 at 11:14 AM

The sputnik thing was used by Jennifer Granholm, I believe.
This is important, not whether he plagarized or not, the American people obviously don’t give a sh** and neither does The One. Everything out of his mouth is a revelation according to him.
The guy is a complete farce. That is important to point out over and over and over. He is running for POTUS in 2012. There is not an ounce of substance, if it is not pointed out repeatedly we end up with another 4 years.

ORconservative on January 27, 2011 at 11:14 AM

It’s OK, Barry.

Shy Guy on January 27, 2011 at 11:14 AM

Maybe the One should get himself some of that education. The msm did try to portray him as being more hands on in crafting this speech. He must not have read Newtie’s book, either, before borrowing the wtf slogan. Sarah was the only one to hit him on the head with that one.

Kissmygrits on January 27, 2011 at 11:15 AM

I like this from the L.A. Times.

“And, of course, such addresses do not contain the kinds of source credits and detailed footnotes that a diligent Barack Obama would have required when he was elected the first black president of the esteemed Harvard Law Review exactly 21 years ago next week”

I am sure he was a poor president there also.

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/washington/2011/01/obama-state-of-the-union-plagiarism.html

Cindy Munford on January 27, 2011 at 11:18 AM

Flat, uninspiring, leftist drivel. More of the same blame Bush, class warfare talk. Basically, it was just political buzzword blah.

http://www.examiner.com/conservative-in-spokane/sotu-president-bashes-bush-calls-for-higher-taxes-on-the-rich

jdawg on January 27, 2011 at 11:21 AM

A Smart Politics analysis of 69 orally delivered State of the Union Addresses since the mid-1930s finds the text of Obama’s speech to have notched the second lowest score on the Flesch-Kincaid readability test recorded by a U.S. President.

He..is..a..complete..fraud.

Danny B on January 27, 2011 at 11:24 AM

He doesn’t mean what he says, so why should he bother saying something original?

Ronnie on January 27, 2011 at 11:24 AM

When you live in an echo chamber like the 0bama White House… How can you tell if it is a plagiarism or merely an echo of your own empty platitudes?

LegendHasIt on January 27, 2011 at 11:25 AM

The idea of plagiarizing cliches is moronic. “Light for the world?” “American family?” “Founded on an idea?” These are all so common.

And boring.

Abby Adams on January 27, 2011 at 11:12 AM

As opposed to Sarah Palin, whose “cliches” and “plattitudes” will have people talking about them for months or even years after the fact. “Death panels,” anyone?

gryphon202 on January 27, 2011 at 11:25 AM

Is it “plagiarism”… nah… but it is intentional… there’s no way they came up with that winning the future stuff without knowing Gingrich did it first… this is semiotics… an act of trying to subliminally associate Obama with moderates and republicans….

ninjapirate on January 27, 2011 at 11:26 AM

Good point. If he’d plagiarized me I’d have just as soon avoided getting credited for it. I’m with Conrad Black, who describes it as a groaning farrago of clichés and unlikely undertakings.

Drained Brain on January 27, 2011 at 11:09 AM

You made me look up “farrago”.

SKYFOX on January 27, 2011 at 11:26 AM

Ed, aren’t there enough idiots out there on the left to be debunked? Why are you taking the time to critique somebody who was critical of Obama? Trying to shore up your moderate street cred or something?

fossten on January 27, 2011 at 11:04 AM

Good to see HA’s got his back. /s

Another “to be fair” moment.

mankai on January 27, 2011 at 11:28 AM

Is it “plagiarism”… nah… but it is intentional… there’s no way they came up with that winning the future stuff without knowing Gingrich did it first… this is semiotics… an act of trying to subliminally associate Obama with moderates and republicans….

ninjapirate on January 27, 2011 at 11:26 AM

Time will tell, but if that really was his goal, I think he failed. Imagine that!

SKYFOX on January 27, 2011 at 11:29 AM

Barry plagiarize? Hell, why not. He’s never had an original idea of his own.

GarandFan on January 27, 2011 at 11:29 AM

nukemhill on January 27, 2011 at 11:14 AM

It’s a US NEWS opinion column.

I think there are larger issues to worry about than defending Barry against a mildly critical opinion piece.

mankai on January 27, 2011 at 11:30 AM

1. Warp The Facts
2. Widen The Facade.
3. We The Fools
4. Wages To Fall
5. Why The Frown?
6. Waivers Too Fruitful
7. Where’s The Freedom?
8. Wasilla The Fox
9. Waken The Force
10. Win The Future

Electrongod on January 27, 2011 at 11:32 AM

What’s missing from Ed’s analysis is the “can you imagine if Bush did it?” reminder.

Because if Bush, or almost any other Republican except Tim Pawlwnty, had done this, Ed would be all over him/her for intellectual laziness.

DaydreamBeliever on January 27, 2011 at 11:36 AM

“Solid B+”

I doubt O has written a paper in his life. It is obvious his speech writer hasn’t.

Beaglemom on January 27, 2011 at 11:37 AM

Didn’t the press want us to think that Obama wrote this speech? Picture after picture was released of Obama with his speech writers working on the speech.

yeah, Sue. They loooove to tell us how hard Obama is working on his speeches.

I agree with profitsbeard. It was mostly a cut and paste of his own previous speeches.

MayBee on January 27, 2011 at 11:38 AM

Electrongod on January 27, 2011 at 11:32 AM

You left out the most often thought of phrase when someone sees “WTF”. Did you do that on purpose?

Oldnuke on January 27, 2011 at 11:40 AM

Did you do that on purpose?

Oldnuke on January 27, 2011 at 11:40 AM

*snapping fingers*
I forgot.

Electrongod on January 27, 2011 at 11:52 AM

It’s called intellectual honesty. If we can’t stand on a foundation of integrity and honesty, then what’s the point?

nukemhill on January 27, 2011 at 11:14 AM

You can be intellectually honest without going out of your way to bring up stuff like this. Not mentioning this article does not equal intellectual dishonesty. As I said, there’s plenty of other stuff out there to debunk.

fossten on January 27, 2011 at 11:54 AM

It’s called intellectual honesty. If we can’t stand on a foundation of integrity and honesty, then what’s the point?

nukemhill on January 27, 2011 at 11:14 AM

HotAir is so intellectually honest, it’s bordering on downright lefty butt-kissing. Right now the headlines are from Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal, NYT, MSNBC, Scientific American, Sarah Palin, two from Politico, The Hill, and ABC News. HA routinely headlines Meggy Mac but almost NEVER headlines Ann Coulter, George Will, Michael Reagan, David Limbaugh, or any other brilliant conservative. Heck, even Ron Reagan got highlighted the other day.

WTF, HA?

fossten on January 27, 2011 at 11:58 AM

fossten on January 27, 2011 at 11:58 AM

Now, now, I think Mr. Will’s new articles are usually in the headlines. I don’t mind the coverage, it lets us know what is out there. And you know RR,Jr. was just mentioned so his a$$ would get kicked in comments.

Cindy Munford on January 27, 2011 at 12:06 PM

Thanks for pointing out this non-issue, Ed.

IMHO, making a big deal out of something as miniscule as this harms conservative causes. It makes conservatives look mean-spirited, petty, vindictive and piling on the president. In reality, there are literally dozens of issues about which we can have valid, deep and important criticism levied.

How about we stick to that stuff, instead of wailing because a president quoted a great line from history, and didn’t add in a footnote?

pbundy on January 27, 2011 at 12:18 PM

WTF, HA?

fossten on January 27, 2011 at 11:58 AM

The headlines are mostly about the idiocy that appears out there in the real world. From the usual bs that emanates from the usual gasbags, to the unusual, weird stuff (psychic figures out where a body is buried! news at 11!). I figure Allah runs that show, and he’s mostly highlighting the crazy sh!t that’s going on.

The really important stuff gets blogged, with honest commentary from our hosts. You can argue that this story isn’t worth the time that Ed put in. That’s fine. But I find nothing wrong with him spending a little time taking someone to task for weak tea. It strengthens our legitimate arguments when we make them.

nukemhill on January 27, 2011 at 12:22 PM

George Washington’s farewell address received a post-high school score on Kincaid. Oh how standards have dropped.

andy85719 on January 27, 2011 at 12:22 PM

nukemhill on January 27, 2011 at 12:22 PM

Especially when you consider it that it is U.S. News and the L.A. Times pushing the story. That’s pretty weird. Slow news day?

Cindy Munford on January 27, 2011 at 12:26 PM

It’s not plagiarism when the President does it!

slickwillie2001 on January 27, 2011 at 12:56 PM

Simpsons did it! Simpsons did it!

CatsGodot on January 27, 2011 at 1:24 PM

Nothing Felzenberg offers comes even close to plagiarism. He would be on much firmer ground to claim that the speech was filled with clichés, poorly written, and overall rather dull. That makes it mediocre at best, which might cause a grad student to get sent to the dean anyway, but not on grounds of plagiarism.

Only in U.S. America can such a mediocre person become president.

Schadenfreude on January 27, 2011 at 1:50 PM

Ayers is a plagiarist?

The Mega Independent on January 27, 2011 at 1:56 PM

Ed, aren’t there enough idiots out there on the left to be debunked? Why are you taking the time to critique somebody who was critical of Obama? Trying to shore up your moderate street cred or something?

fossten on January 27, 2011 at 11:04 AM

Sure, Ed defended POTUS from the overblown charge of plagiarism lodged by this particular critic, since it’s absolutely correct that it’s impossible to find someone guilty of plagiarizing cliches so pathetically shopworn, they’re being peddled in the Fourth of July section at your local Hallmark Card Shop.

But it’s not like Ed stopped there or anything. In fact, you could say Ed got Obama off on the easily dismissble misdemeanor so he could pin him to the wall with a Class C felony: the SOTU speech was much too sophomorically conceived & way too amateurishly crafted to have been plagiarized by anybody older than 13.

Ed makes the far more devastating critique here, IMO, that the most allegedly brilliant guy to ever be elected President of the United States is guilty of having the rhetorical – and cognitive! – skills of a precocious seventh grader.

In other words, Ed’s contending that if Felzenberg is the least bit accurate that POTUS lifted any phrases for the SOTU, then he must have lifted them from Malia & Sasha.

Hard to see how that charge would shore up his ‘moderate street cred’ with the Frums of the world.

leilani on January 27, 2011 at 3:05 PM

The last president who set such a mission for the nation he led, and in those exact words, was Woodrow Wilson.

Well that’s a problem right there.
Wilson was yet another Progressive POS.
The only thing he got right was Communists were bad news.

Badger40 on January 27, 2011 at 5:42 PM