The recent flurry over Sen. Joe Biden's borrowing of rhetorical phrases for his speeches without giving specific attribution is a tempest in a teapot. It would be the curious -- and ineffective -- political oratory that was studded with historical footnotes or literary annotations. This attempt to find controversy -- somewhere, anywhere -- erroneously suggests that the use of nonoriginal phraseology in a stump speech is somehow akin to academic plagiarism. But Sen. Biden's speeches are not term papers, and a political campaign is not a scholarly journal.

Perhaps the best-known rhetorical phrase of the last three decades is President Kennedy's challenge to Americans, in his inaugural address, to "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Almost identical language had been used by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in an 1884 speech, by LeBaron Russell Briggs in his 1904 book "Routine and Ideals" and by Warren Harding in his speech to the 1916 Republican convention. President Kennedy, of course, credited none of them in his remarks -- nor should he have.

Political discourse will be dull indeed if Sen. Biden's critics have their way. I hereby expressly acknowledge to them that "tempest in a teapot" is Cicero's phrase (from "De legibus" III), not mine.

NEAL S. MANNE Washington

In May there was candidate Gary Hart's now-admitted "mistakes." It is now September and candidate Sen. Joe Biden's plagiarism dilemma has surfaced.

Let's do this. Let's call this year the year of the "Stupid Campaign Trick" and watch the rest of the candidates very carefully to see if they exhibit an extraordinarily insufficient level of common sense.

And, then, let's hope that at least two candidates will remain who possess some degree of native good judgment and a minimal need to dissemble and deceive.

Let us hope, but let us not hold our collective breath.

MICHAELA COHAN Washington