Monday, February 18, 2008

Just Words?

The Clinton campaign, in the person of Howard Wolfson, made a big issue today out of a powerful part of Barack Obama's speech in Wisconsin the other night, quoted here, in which he quoted several famous political phrases, and asked the question, "just words?" This was in response to the Clinton charge that all he's about is making speeches. It turns out that Governor Deval Patrick, responding to the same sort of charge in his campaign a few years ago, quoted some of the same phrases, and also appended "just words?"

Wolfson charged it was plagarism, and tried to make this a question of inauthencity and character. Obama disputed the larger point--saying that he writes most of his own speeches, and wrote two books--but allowed that he probably should have acknowledged Patrick, a friend with whom he swaps ideas and phrases (which was confirmed by Patrick.)

The networks used the story, and investigated Obama's rejoinder, that Hillary has used phrases of his. So they included instances in which Hillary used his words and those of her husband and John Edwards. So the story goes nowhere really. The fact that the Hillary camp made a big deal out of it made it a story, but the main effect was to shoulder aside that Bill Clinton story that looked like it was going to dominate the day, with footage of him shouting at hecklers and getting in the face of someone else at a rope line, with angry face and wagging finger.

Otherwise, to steal from somebody I heard on TV, the response has to be: is this the best you got? Plagarism is a serious charge to some of us, but this doesn't come close. For one thing, this was an impromptu addition, and not part of his prepared text. So there was no plagarism in the text. Since the person who "wrote" or originated the phrases doesn't object to Obama using them--and in fact suggested to Obama that he use them-- even without attribution, there is no case.

It was also a very small part of the speech, although Wolfson made it sound like everything Obama has ever said should therefore be called into question. Let the rabid right bloggers get to work! As for Wolfson, to say he is well named is an insult to wolves. All he is about is attack, and the truth is not germane. Mark my words: when Obama is the nominee, and John McCain loses one of his speechwriting advisors who says he'll quit rather than write negative stuff about Obama, it wouldn't surprise me if that void is filled by Howard Wolfson. If he doesn't have somebody to malign, the man's life is meaningless.

TV played the Patrick and Obama sections, and what struck me is that Obama's delivery was so much better. Patrick had the preacher thing going, but Obama's had more of an edge, and it was well integrated into the point he was making.

But the real point of this affair, it seems to me, is that the Clinton campaign created another non-issue and made the absurd claim that it calls into question Obama's entire candidacy, while the Obama campaign said not a word that I know of--and certainly didn't call an hour conference call with reporters--to point out how out of control Bill Clinton appeared yesterday, which calls into question Hillary's entire candidacy, because we don't know what his role is going to be. In the end, I believe this story will tell more.

No comments: