Obama's borrowed words

Why the front-runner's sampling of Deval Patrick's speeches isn't much of an issue so far.

Published February 21, 2008 12:22PM (EST)

I have to admit, I was surprised the first time I saw video showing the similarities between speeches by Barack Obama and Deval Patrick on Monday. Then another echo was unearthed and posted on YouTube -- in both clips, Obama borrows not just Patrick's words, but his cadence -- and I thought it might be trouble for Obama. But it hasn't been, so far. I've been thinking about why. Here's a video about it, text continues below.

One big reason the issue hasn't become a huge story is that Obama knocked it out of the news with impressive wins in Wisconsin and Hawaii yesterday. But another reason is, it's predictable that someone like me would be a little bothered by Obama's borrowing -- someone who writes and edits for a living, but more than that, someone who likes Obama but admits to having questions about his candidacy. I would never call his appeal "just words," but I've wondered in print and elsewhere about whether we know enough about him to know what kind of president he'll be. Better than John McCain? Absolutely. Better than Hillary Clinton? I haven't been sure.

It's also easy for Obama skeptics to exaggerate the impact of the borrowing revelations, because they tend to exaggerate the role of Obama's speech-making to his appeal. But while it's easy to mock Obamamania, the fact is most of his supporters are not just swooning over speeches, they really believe they see evidence he'll be a better president than Clinton. I've read enough Salon letters threads to know that for every so-called Obamabot, there are probably five Obama supporters who can cite solid reasons for backing him, chapter and verse (any of them would have done a better job than poor Austin state Sen. Kirk Watson last night). So a few journalists as well as Obama critics and skeptics are going to think this is a serious story, but most people won't pay attention. Unless a real pattern of borrowing emerges in other other speeches.

But I think another reason this hasn't become a big story is that the Clinton campaign immediately got its hands dirty trying to make it one. ABC News had the story on Sunday, and others were already following up; did the Clinton folks really need to have a conference call to hype it? That made it seem like partisan bickering more than a legitimate issue reporters had sleuthed out on their own. I've talked about how the media has been unfair to Clinton, but the fact is her campaign gives its enemies plenty to work with.

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By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections