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Joe Biden, Rand Paul and Plagiarism – False Equivalence Run Amok


With the outing of Rand Paul’s alleged serial plagiarism gathering steam his supporters are weighing in on social media. To paraphrase the common post, “And I suppose you were this outraged about Joe Biden too.”

Well no, not really because comparing what Biden did with what Paul is accused of doing is a pluperfect examples of false equivalence. Biden has during his long career been accused twice of plagiarism. The first instance is little known but was described briefly by plagiarism hawk Jonathan Bailey in August 26, 2008. At that time both presidential candidates Obama and McCain had been separately accused of intellectual theft which of course renewed interest in Biden’s problems two decades earlier.

Bailey, writing in Plagiarism Today, said he was unable to find much about what was then a 40 year-old infraction but that when Biden was in law school he submitted a paper of 15 pages about one-third of which was copied without attribution from other sources. Biden admitted to it, saying he was not aware of the need to cite sources, and the incident was expunged from his record. Bailey said a New York Times article from that period quoted Biden as saying “My intent was not to deceive anyone. For if it were, I would not have been so blatant,” and that, “If I had intended to cheat, would I have been so stupid?”

(By the way, for anyone unclear on the concept, the two paragraphs above are how one properly attributes sources in newspaper articles and speeches)

I am not going to cut Biden any slack on that one; a law student should know (although Rand Paul, at twice Biden’s age at that time seemingly does not) how to credit another for their words.  He was young, but he was also a law student and should have been well versed in case references and footnotes. He was also 20 years old, and as a famous Republican president once said, when I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish.

The second charge, the one that spawned the 1988 presidential campaign flap and prompted the devastating television ads from Michael Dukakis that ultimately drove Biden from the race, involved a statement on August 23 1987 in the course of a presidential primary debate. According to an article written by Media Matters during the 2008 campaign, Biden had paraphrased a speech by British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, inserting biographical information about his own childhood into a single paragraph Kinnock had composed about his hardscrabble upbringing. He did not credit Kinnock on that occasion but did do so in an interview with the National Education Association three days later (before the scandal broke) and in other speeches both before and after the debate. This was confirmed by a reporter who had covered his routine stump speech on August 14 and by the Boston Globe and New York Times regarding other occasions.

The Media Matters article was occasioned not by accusations against Obama and McCain but by journalists’ resulting resurrection of the vice presidential candidate’s old “Kinnockgate” scandal.  Media Matters chided reporters for covering only the brouhaha surrounding the debate while failing to report on the exculpatory facts of the situation. It was that coverage that has allowed Biden’s old misstep to survive into its third decade.

Now compare this to the Rand Paul situation. He was caught initially by two different reporters. Rachel Maddow first reported on a speech Paul made in Virginia in which he quoted, at different points in his speech three or four excerpts from a summary of a movie plot. The excerpts were from Wikipedia. Wikipedia!

Subsequently Andrew Kaczynski of Buzzfeed identified another instance of stealing a movie summary virtually word for word from the same source and others have subsequently found other blatant instances in a book he wrote, congressional testimony and op-eds written for the Washington Times. That crappy excuse for journalism, by the way, said on Wednesday that Paul would no longer be writing on their editorial page.

Joe Biden admitted to the two instances of which he was accused and apologized (even though others had pretty much explained away any intentional abuse in the more famous case). Rand Paul initially denied the multiple accusations, called Maddow a hater, said he was being treated unfairly, made it clear he was clueless about what attribution means, made jokes about challenging someone (Maddow?) to a duel, then finally blamed it on his staff. Now we just have to wait for him to join his followers and whine, “But Biden did it.”

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