On speechwriters (and plagiarism)

October 6, 2008

Years ago an incoming director of education called us together for a meeting to wow us with a speech and set the tone for his tenure as our boss.  The central feature of his presentation was an anecdote about his experience with a little girl who proudly defied her teacher’s assumptions in the classroom.  His talk went over quite well with secondary teachers, but our elementary colleagues were livid:  most had read Everything I Know in Life I Learned in Kindergarten from which the central anecdote had been cribbed.  These teachers were outraged that the leader of a respected educational institution would pass off as his own a story lifted from a current best-seller and worse, that he would be stupid enough to think these rubes in Lanark County hadn’t read the book.

Confronted with the charge of plagiarism on his first day on the job, the director for the next few weeks toured the County, meeting with each school’s staff to deliver a personal apology.  These extra meetings further annoyed the teachers, as did his insistence that he had bought the speech from a public relations firm in Toronto and couldn’t really be held responsible for its content.

Why were we so angry?  As educators we expected a director to be someone to whom we could look up as our intellectual superior, a leader who had found the position by virtue of his or her ideas.  That someone in an exalted position would perform an act on the level of the most despicable, dishonest and underachieving kid in a class, well, it left us a bit breathless.

We had had a lifetime of experience with plagiarists: those who are caught early, show remorse and mend their ways can still do well.  Those who succeed a few times in their deceptions quickly become trapped in their mindset and can’t get out of it.  From my observation these people usually fail in life.  That’s why good teachers try so hard and so early to teach habits of intellectual honesty to their students:  we want them to have successful lives.

When it comes to politics the lines begin to blur.  Leaders we could admire can’t get elected because of the sound bite and what columnist Alex Strachan called last week “the way the medium trumps the message every time on television.”

In March of 2003 Stephen Harper read in the House of Commons a speech plagiarized from remarks made three days earlier by Australian P.M. John Howard.  Perhaps Harper’s writer would have been a bit more careful had he known that Howard’s speech would go into the history books as one of the turning points of the era.  What’s the problem?  A man who would lead our country is so unsure of his beliefs and the needs of his people that he must steal ideas and pass them off as his own?  Then why lead?  Politics is a game, and getting power is how you score. That’s all that matters.  The rest is just “fairly standard political rhetoric,” as Harper told a CTV reporter after a second charge of plagiarizing a speech from fellow intellectual giant, Mike Harris.

O.K., we can write Harper off as a lazy character who farms out to speech writers the tedious duty of finding words to feed the masses.  That makes him a useless sort to many of us, but the ballot box can take care of that.

But even scarier is the Sarah Palin phenomenon south of the border.  Palin is a good looking woman with a clear voice, excellent enunciation, and she can read a teleprompter.  What terrifies me is the words she will find on that screen and pass off as her own.

After her acceptance speech Robert Kennedy Jr. wrote an impassioned criticism of the use of the quotation:  “We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty and sincerity and dignity.”  Speechwriter Matthew Scully did not name its author, Westbrook Pegler, and the question Americans must face is whether they should hold Palin accountable for the actions and opinions of the author whom she quoted.

Here’s what Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote about Pegler in the Huffington Post:

“Fascist writer Westbrook Pegler, an avowed racist who Sarah Palin approvingly quoted in her acceptance speech for the moral superiority of small town values, expressed his fervent hope about my father, Robert F. Kennedy, as he contemplated his own run for the presidency in 1965, that ‘some white patriot of the Southern tier will spatter his spoonful of brains in public premises before the snow flies.’  It might be worth asking Governor Palin for a tally of the other favorites from her reading list.”

I don’t think Sarah Palin is aware enough to realize the implications of this quote.  To those who could read the code, though, it was a strong statement that the candidate will be a willing puppet for the far right.  By the end of his career Pegler had become so radical that even the John Birch society canceled his membership, yet George W. Bush’s head speechwriter chose to channel his views through Sarah Palin.

We must hold our leaders to a high standard.  Money, if wasted, can be re-earned and replaced, but the flow of history is a raging current in a river:  unexamined ideas can have irrevocable consequences, because there is no going back.  If the speech Harper plagiarized had had its intended effect, Canadian soldiers would have already endured half a decade in Iraq.


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