THE BIDEN brouhaha -- Is it yet a full-fledged flap? Does it bid to become something even more than a flap, a political blowaway? -- has raised any number of questions and answers, some of them beside the point. On the plagiarism charge there are several things to be said. One is that Sen. Biden evidently did credit the authors of his borrowed political language most of the time when on the stump, or at least somehow advert to the fact that he was singing someone else's song when he knew he was. He apparently did not do so in the borrowing he made while in law school, an act that really cannot be explained away. It was 23 years ago, he reminds us. So it is only fair to note that he was young and that it was way back then, and it is true one doesn't hold a man accountable forever for his misconduct as a relative youth.
So you can, in a way, say of this plagiarism charge that Sen. Biden was young in one serious episode and that in most or at least many of the others he did acknowledge or signal that he was using someone else's words. And, as many sages have observed in the past couple days, campaigning politicians are notorious magpies in any event, swooping down and flying off with one another's phraseology much more than anyone likes to allow. In the age of the ghostwritten everything it is doubly hard to know when you have left the realm of merely deplorable common practice and entered the outrage zone.
But even when you have said that, if you have watched the matched-up film clips of, first, Neil Kinnock, the British Labor Party leader, and, then, Sen. Biden earnestly saying the same thing, you won't be quite satisfied that the issue amounts to nothing. We cite the Kinnock quote because it is surely the most disturbing one to watch being magpied by Joe Biden. What is so disturbing is that this is not some eloquent formulation of a general principle or some arresting illustration of one -- the normal sort of thing to quote. On the contrary, however original it may have been with Mr. Kinnock, this account of how he and his wife were the first in their families to attend college and how the families had worked the coal mines and then been energetic enough to come up at the end of a grueling day's labor and play football for several hours and how such people could not have been less gifted, only less privileged than their descendant the speaker and so forth and so on, was meant as a kind of heartfelt, personal cry, a declaration of identity, something very individual and particular to the speaker.
To appropriate and incorporate something of this character into your rhetoric is really strange. It is the inauthenticity of the cry as issued forth from Sen. Biden, its derivative, simulated nature that troubles. We suspect that it is this, rather than the question of whether Sen. Biden properly credited all his citations, that is troubling people about what has been revealed.