Monday, February 18, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama said today he used, without credit, portions of a speech given by his friend Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick after Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign accused the Illinois senator of plagiarism. The tussle, complete with video evidence that will probably be edited into an attack ad, smacks of the plagiarism charges that helped sink Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential candidacy in 1988. Mr. Patrick, an Obama supporter, has dismissed the copycat charges as bogus since he has helped the campaign with speechwriting and the two are close friends. But Team Clinton worked to paint the speech similarities as part of a pattern where Mr. Obama offers little but rhetoric, and sometimes, the words aren’t even his own. The setting was the Wisconsin Founders Day dinner, and Mr. Obama was set to follow Mrs. Clinton and close the Democratic fundraiser with a 2,425-word speech highlighting his record and policy proposals. Several reporters who usually follow Mrs. Clinton teased that his speech was “boring” and at one point the crowd seemed restless. But once the Democrats began to respond to Mr. Obama, his voice rose and he scrapped most of his prepared remarks. Toward the end of his more than 40-minute speech, Mr. Obama boomed a response to the Clinton critique of his candidacy as not substantive: “The most important thing that we can do right now is to re-engage the American people in the process of governance,” he said. “Don’t tell me words don’t matter. ‘I have a dream’ - just words? ‘We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal.’ Just words? ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself?’ Just words, just speeches?” That passage, and several others, were not part of his prepared remarks. By last night, the Clinton campaign sent reporters a story documenting the section was almost word-for-word what Mr. Patrick said in response to criticism from then Lt. Gov. Kerry Healy, a Republican who accused him of “all I have to offer is words.” “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal. 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. I have a dream, just words,” Mr. Patrick said then, in remarks that are available on YouTube. Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, who supported Mr. Patrick then and is now a Clinton surrogate, said the speech marked a turning point in the campaign and helped Mr. Patrick win the governorship. The words were inspiring Saturday night, and inspiring “two years ago when I first heard them,” he said today. Now that he knows they are the same, they “seem less authentic and more political.” He likened it to copying “off someone else’s homework.” “Hillary has got it way ahead of Obama when it comes to substance,” he said. Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said today that Mr. Obama and Mr. Patrick “often share ideas,” and charged that Mrs. Clinton is “denigrating the power of words.” “Ultimately it won’t matter to voters in Wisconsin, Texas or Ohio,” Mr. Plouffe said. Mr. Obama told reporters in Ohio this morning “Deval and I do trade ideas all the time,” and both the senator and his campaign noted that Mrs. Clinton has used several of his key phrases. Among them, “Fired up and ready to go” and saying that the United States must “turn the page” to a new politics. “I really don’t think this is too big of a deal,” Mr. Obama said. “I was on the stump and you know he had suggested that we use these lines, I thought they were good lines.” Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson used the word “plagiarism” several times and said the speech was not a matter of “three words” but was “a major phrase from a major speech.” Mr. Wolfson said the incident calls into question Mr. Obama’s candidacy since he is “running on rhetoric” and was espousing the “value and power of words” in his remarks and the words he used weren’t his own. He declined to say whether the campaign would use the video of the Patrick and Obama speeches in an attack ad. Mr. Wolfson and Mr. McGovern hesitated to draw a comparison between the situation and Mr. Biden, Delaware Democrat who failed to cite British politician Neil Kinnock during an Iowa presidential debate in 1988. Mr. Biden had been quoting and crediting the Labor Party leader for months on the campaign trail but the mishap inspired reports of plagiarism and prompted reporters to dig into a “big black mark” in his law school records.

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