MILWAUKEE — When Sen. Barack Obama questioned whether “I Have a Dream” was “just words,” his booming oration prompted big cheers from Wisconsin Democrats but opened the door for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign to accuse him of plagiarism.
The Clinton campaign yesterday said the Illinois Democrat ripped off the lengthy and inspiring passage from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, and said it undermines their rival’s credibility.
Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said Mr. Obama espoused the value and power of words in his remarks, but that the words he used weren’t his own.
Mr. Obama, noting Mrs. Clinton has borrowed some of his key campaign phrases without attribution, said he should have given Mr. Patrick credit but acknowledged they are friends and “trade ideas all the time.”
“I really don’t think this is too big of a deal,” Mr. Obama said. “I was on the stump and … he had suggested that we use these lines, I thought they were good lines.”
Mr. Patrick, an Obama supporter, dismissed the copycat charges as bogus since he has helped the campaign with speechwriting and the two are close friends.
Yesterday’s tussle, complete with video evidence of Mr. Obama and Mr. Patrick that’s likely to be used in an attack ad, smacks of the plagiarism charges that helped sink Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential candidacy in 1988.
At Saturday night’s Wisconsin Founders Day dinner, 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 toward the close of his more than 40-minute speech, Mr. Obama’s voice rose and he scrapped most of his prepared remarks.
He 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 was not part of his prepared remarks.
By Sunday 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 Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Kerry Healy, a Republican who charged: “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 in October 2006.
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 “they were inspiring two years ago when I first heard Deval Patrick use them,” he said yesterday. Now that he knows they are the same, they “seem less authentic and more political.”
He likened it to copying “someone else’s homework.”
“I’m not sure these great speeches, whether they are all his speeches or whether they are somebody else’s,” Mr. McGovern said.
Mr. Obama said he’s written two best-selling books and writes most of his own speeches, and he and his campaign aides noted Mrs. Clinton has used several of his stump lines, including “Fired up and ready to go” and saying it’s time to “turn the page” to a new politics.
All year, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama used each other’s phrases, along with those uttered by former Sen. John Edwards.
Last May, Mrs. Clinton’s speech on economic prosperity and blasting the Bush administration echoed Mr. Obama’s own speech in November 2005.
“They call it the ownership society. But it’s really the ‘on-your-own’ society,” she said.
In a speech honoring the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy nearly two years earlier, Mr. Obama said: “We know this as the ownership society. But in our past there has been another term for it — social Darwinism — every man or woman for him — or herself. … It allows us to say … tough luck … pull yourself up by your bootstraps … you’re on your own.”
Mrs. Clinton also cribbed from New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson last year after he said in a debate: “Senator Obama does represent change. Senator Clinton has experience. Change and experience — with me, you get both.”
A short time later she told New Hampshire voters: “I know some people think you have to choose between change and experience. With me, you don’t have to choose.”
Both campaigns hesitated to draw a comparison between the situation and Mr. Biden, Delaware Democrat, who in what he called an “oversight” failed to cite British politician Neil Kinnock during an Iowa presidential debate in 1988.
Mr. Biden had quoted — and credited — the Labor Party leader for months on the campaign trail, but the mishap inspired reports of plagiarism and prompted reporters to dig into his law-school records.
In his book, “Promises to Keep,” Mr. Biden said the debate video and tape of Mr. Kinnock was provided to Maureen Dowd of the New York Times by rival and then Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’ campaign.
“This looked terrible — and it couldn’t have come at a worse time,” he wrote.
Mr. Obama’s most famed speech, his 2004 address to the Democratic National Convention, talked about “The Audacity of Hope,” which later became the title of one of his books. It was inspired by a sermon of the same title given by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright in the late 1980s.
Mr. Obama called it “a meditation on a fallen world” filled with “stories of strife” and pain.
“Those stories — of survival, and freedom, and hope — became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world,” Mr. Obama wrote in his book “Dreams From My Father.”
“I … felt for the first time how that spirit carried within it, nascent, incomplete, the possibility of moving beyond our narrow dreams.”
The sermon inspired him to tears.