Politics & Policy

He Who Lives by Words Alone . . .

A political messiah's all-too-human campaign.

It remains to be seen if the fallout from Barack Obama’s alleged plagiarism of a speech from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick will amount to much. Under a barrage of Team Clinton attacks, Obama admits error, while Patrick has stepped forward to take responsibility for suggesting that Obama borrow his lines.

Here’s what Obama said in Wisconsin over the weekend:

“Don’t tell me words don’t matter! ‘I have a dream.’ Just words. ‘We hold these truths to be self evident that all me are created equal.’ Just words. ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Just words. Just speeches. It’s true that speeches don’t solve all problems, but what is also true is if we cannot inspire the country to believe again then it doesn’t matter how many policies and plans we have and that is why I am running for president of the United States of America and that is why we just won eight elections straight, because the American people want to believe in change again. Don’t tell me words don’t matter.”

Compare that to then-candidate Patrick’s October 2006 speech. “‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ Just words? Just words? ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ Just words? ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ Just words? ‘I have a dream.’ Just words?”

Now as far as incidents of plagiarism go, this seems like small Yukon Golds. But what this incident, and the Obama camp’s reaction to it, does show is that cracks in his messianic façade might finally be showing.

Predictably, the Clinton camp was hitting Obama hard on the issue the day before a competitive Wisconsin primary. Early Monday morning, Clinton Communications Director Howard Wolfson and Rep. Jim McGovern (D., Mass.), held a conference call to discuss the incident.

As to be expected, much of the call amounted to Clinton camp spin. “Senator Obama’s record as a legislator and a public official is thin. He has not had a long record in public life, so he is really asking us to judge him on the strength of his rhetoric and the strength of his promises,” Wolfson said. It follows that under these circumstances, scrutiny of that rhetoric brought to bear by the plagiarism accusations is fair game. Spin or not, it seems true enough that Obama’s staked bid for the presidency almost solely on the strength of his lofty-to-the-point-of-acrophobia rhetoric about “hope” and “change.”

As a result, his campaign rallies are almost entirely devoid of talk about policy. Obama will argue that there are plenty of specifics available on his website, where you can download a 64-page “Blueprint for Change.” But the question that the Clinton camp wants to raise is how many of his supporters are voting for the actual blueprint over the nebulous concept of “change”? That’s where Hillary thinks she has an edge.

Obama’s rhetoric contrasts sharply with Hillary’s policy-heavy stump speech. For the past few months, Hillary’s been on the losing end of that contrast. So while it may be hard to indict Obama as a plagiarist in this instance, anything that gets voters to examine the substance — or lack thereof — behind Obama’s voter appeals is in Hillary’s best interest.

And what will they find upon examining his rhetoric? Well, there’s a lot to be wary of. Ironically, the statement Obama is said to have plagiarized was an attempt to defend himself against the charge that his candidacy is “just words.” Even more ironically, his defense of stirring rhetoric over specific solutions proves the point of his detractors.

“The famous phrases Obama is cleverly aligning himself with were, of course, more than ‘just words.’ They were words connected with actions, ideals, and concrete goals; with soldiers and war and sacrifice and death,” Jonathan Last observed in The Weekly Standard.

Yet, Obama has no trouble putting himself in the context of such historical greatness, sans any historically significant personal achievement to call his own. That’s awfully presumptuous for someone who was merely a state senator three years ago, someone without a single political accomplishment the average American could name. And Obama has a serial habit of putting himself at the center of the historical and political universe.

After Obama’s “Yes, we can” victory speech in Wisconsin following his sweep of the Potomac primaries, blogger Jonathan Stein at Mother Jones — a political outlet presumably favorable to Obama’s liberalism — examined the way he framed U.S. History in the speech:

I am profoundly troubled that any candidate would chart the course of American history as follows (and I’m rearranging Obama’s history here to make it more chronological): American Revolutionaries -> Manifest Destiny -> Slaves/Abolitionists -> Suffragettes -> the Labor Movement -> the Greatest Generation -> the Civil Rights Movement -> Himself.

Lest you think that Stein’s summary is unfairly overstating Obama’s solipsistic sophistry, the same day the plagiarism story broke, Michelle Obama came out and summed up her feelings about her husband’s candidacy. “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country, because it feels like hope is making a comeback,” she said. Perhaps she’s proud enough to purchase her husband a big wooden cross, so that come Election Day he can climb up there and nail himself to it.

If Obama himself is proud of his campaign and the rhetorical course he’s charted, it wasn’t evident by the pettiness of the campaign’s response to Clinton’s accusations of plagiarism. Team Obama issued a release pointing to instances where Clinton had allegedly borrowed Obama’s phrases like “turn the page”; “bring our country together”; and his signature line — “fired up and ready to go.” By what right he claims ownership of any of those pedestrian phrases is anyone’s guess.

But speaking of ownership, perhaps the most withering criticism from the Clinton camp over the plagiarism flap came during the conference call Monday morning when Wolfson observed, “If you’re going to be talking about the value of words, the words ought to be your own,” he said.

That much is certainly true. It’s not a mystery that Obama sees appropriating rhetoric as merely a means to an end. When you value yourself as much as Obama does, words seem pretty cheap by comparison.

— Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.


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