Plagiarism in the SOTU?

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.