Plagiarism and Politics

Monica Wehby finds herself in a controversy over "borrowed" campaign material, which should could address by sharing her own views written in her own hand.A Twitter exchange about candidate plagiarism raises a good question about how to judge authentic candidate thinking.

The exchange on Twitter centered on Oregon GOP Senate challenger Monica Wehby's embrace of Republican white papers on health care and the economy as her own on her campaign website. In addition to plagiarism, the fudged positions were embarrassing for someone who is a pediatric neurosurgeon and has a campaign slogan that says "Keep Your Doctor/Change Your Senator." Wehby is trying to unseat Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley.

One of the Twitter voices dismissed the controversy over the lifted material by noting that most political candidates have ghostwriters who prepare speeches, press releases, position papers and even eulogies for longtime friends. "Whether or not a candidate's website contains material somebody else wrote means precisely zilch."

The subject of plagiarism is more touchy these days after Montana Democratic Senator John Walsh bowed out under pressure from his own political party after he admitted lifting large chunks of material for his master's degree thesis at the Army College.

But the concern has been around for a long time. Barry Goldwater vaulted to political stardom after publication of Conscience of a Conservative, written under his name, but actually written by Brent Bozell Jr., the brother-in-law of William F. Buckley. Profiles in Courage won a Pulitzer Prize in 1957 and established John F. Kennedy as thoughtful statesman. It is widely thought most of the work on the book was performed by Kennedy's speechwriter, Ted Sorensen.

Conscience of a Conservative clearly and economically expressed Goldwater's political views, in language he might have used — and wound up using in his presidential campaign. The essays on political courage in Profiles in Courage reinforced Kennedy's own courage as a Navy officer in World War II and undoubtedly were examples that motivated him.

"Borrowing" material isn't uncommon. Comedians steal jokes, columnists retrace story lines and websites absorb online content. The theft isn't what matters as much as what you do with the stolen goods.

What was awkward for Wehby is that her website pawned off the health care views as hers, when they weren't. She — and her staff — should have known there would be a higher level of scrutiny of her health care views because of her profession and campaign stressing her professional credentials. It is not an unreasonable expectation that a politically inclined medical doctor would have more carefully chiseled views on health care than talking points provided by the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.

After initially calling the charge of plagiarism "absurd," the Wehby camp defended the candidate by saying the purloined material was written by a departed staffer. This only added fuel to the controversy. A much better defense would have been to remove the questionable material and replace it with actual first-person views expressed by Wehby, maybe even in her hand — if her cursive is readable. She is a doctor, after all.

Plagiarism isn't necessarily a career-builder, but it also isn't a fatal disease. As with most issues, people can forgive a transgression, but rarely forget attempts to cover it up or explain it away.