Update: Crowley has now decided not to join the Trump team, saying that “after much reflection,” she “will not be taking a position in the incoming administration.” The episode proves that plagiarism can still be a damaging political crime. Last week, we explored why via a trip through history. That post follows.
Conservative commentator and Fox News analyst Monica Crowley, who is in line for a top spot on President-elect Donald Trump’s National Security Council, is in plagiarism purgatory.
In recent days, CNN reported that her 2012 book was heavily plagiarized, and Politico is now reporting a number of examples of plagiarism in her PhD dissertation. Which leads to the inevitable question: Can she survive it?
Crowley’s post doesn't require confirmation, meaning that if Trump wants to keep her, he can (though the second of these reports could prove particularly troubling, for reasons we’ll get to).
But for now, it’s worth recalling just how big a deal plagiarism is — and was — in politics. History is actually pretty clear on this: Plagiarism itself isn't generally a capital political crime; plagiarism that suggests other foibles and character flaws can be.
For this, let’s compare two presidential contenders who faced numerous plagiarism allegations: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in 2016 and Vice President Biden in 1988.
In late 2013, Rachel Maddow reported that Paul, who was then a hot-commodity future Republican presidential candidate, had lifted passages from Wikipedia’s entry for the movie “Gattaca” in his speeches. Then BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski reported Paul also lifted from Wikipedia while describing the movie “Stand and Deliver.” Then the New York Times’s Alex Burns, who was then with Politico, reported that Paul borrowed language from an AP report and the Christian conservative group Focus on the Family in speeches. Then Kaczynski reported that three pages of Paul’s book had cribbed heavily from a 2003 study by the conservative Heritage Foundation.
All of this happened in about a week’s time. It was a barrage of the kind of allegations that some might have expected would sink a politician.
But it didn’t. And as Paul fought off the reports, blaming the “haters” and generally trying to explain it away, plenty recalled the case of Biden. It was Biden, after all, who was forced to end his 1988 presidential campaign amid a similar onslaught that began with him plagiarizing a British politician.
But while Biden’s campaign is remembered as having been undone by plagiarism, that oversimplifies things. As Slate’s David Greenberg wrote in 2008, Biden’s plagiarism of Neil Kinnock was merely what got the ball rolling on a whole series of other revelations, including résumé inflation and questions about his character.
We’ll quote at length here from Greenberg’s well-researched piece (but you should read the whole thing here):
Over the next days, it emerged that Biden had lifted significant portions of speeches from Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. From Kennedy, he took four long sentences in one case and two memorable sentences in another. (In one account, Biden said that Pat Caddell had inserted them in his speech without Biden’s knowledge; in another account, the failure to credit RFK was chalked up to the hasty cutting and pasting that went into the speech.) From Humphrey, the hot passage was a particularly affecting appeal for government to help the neediest. Yet another uncited borrowing came from John F. Kennedy.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Biden admitted the next day that while in law school he had received an F for a course because he had plagiarized five pages from a published article in a term paper that he submitted. He admitted as well that he had falsely stated that British Labor official Denis Healey had given him the Kinnock tape. (Healey had denied the claim.) And Biden conceded that he had exaggerated in another matter by stating in a speech some years earlier that he had joined sit-ins to desegregate restaurants and movie theaters, and was thus actively involved in the civil rights movement. He protested, his press secretary clarified, “to desegregate one restaurant and one movie theater.” The latter two of these fibs were small potatoes by any reckoning, but in the context of other acts of dishonesty, they helped to form a bigger picture.
Newsweek soon reported on a C-SPAN videotape from the previous April that showed Biden berating a heckler at a campaign stop. While lashing out at the audience member, Biden defended his academic credentials by inflating them, in a fashion that was notably unbecoming and petty for a presidential candidate.
“I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect,” Biden sniped at the voter. “I went to law school on a full academic scholarship.” That claim was false, as was another claim, made in the same rant, that he graduated in the top half of his law-school class. Biden wrongly stated, too, that he had earned three undergraduate degrees, when in fact he had earned one — a double major in history and political science. Another round of press inquiries followed, and Biden finally withdrew from the race on Sept. 23.
As Greenberg argued, Biden’s case was particularly egregious because he essentially borrowed details of Kinnock’s life and cast them as his own, while also inflating his own achievements, among other things. In the end, Greenberg argues, it amounted to “numerous self-aggrandizing thefts, misstatements, and exaggerations that seemed to point to a serious character defect.”
There has been speculation that the rules have changed in the three decades that followed. Perhaps — but they haven’t disappeared. Another instructive example, to my mind, is appointed former senator John Walsh (D-Mont.). In 2014, the New York Times’s Jonathan Martin reported on extensive plagiarism in Walsh's 2007 master’s thesis at the Army War College. Walsh soon suspended his campaign for a full term, essentially ending Democrats’ chances of holding the seat.
So why did this do in Walsh in a way it didn’t do in Paul a year earlier? Because Walsh’s crime wasn't just plagiarism, period, but rather that he plagiarized in an academic paper — a paper that earned him a degree that was part of his résumé. That degree was later revoked by the Army War College, after Walsh ended his campaign. Much like Biden, Walsh’s plagiarism sin was compounded by something else involving his very qualifications for office.
Which brings us back to Crowley. It’s early, but the idea that she plagiarized her dissertation could, logic would suggest, lead to an academic review. Unlike Walsh, Paul or Biden, though, she doesn’t have to win the approval of voters or even a confirmation vote, so it’s really about how much one man cares about plagiarism and potential academic misconduct: Donald Trump.