Barack the borrower

by Beacon Staff • February 27, 2008

Clinton's specious assertion that Obama lifted lines from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick's stump speeches-which were similarly change-oriented-exposes her campaign's desperation.,Sen. Clinton's accusations that Sen. Obama has plagiarized rhetoric is like Barry Bonds claiming Roger Clemens used steroids to gain an unfair advantage on the mound.

Clinton's specious assertion that Obama lifted lines from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick's stump speeches-which were similarly change-oriented-exposes her campaign's desperation. A recent New York Times graphic illuminates the echo chamber: since Feb. 2006, Clinton, not Obama, has been more likely to make listeners wonder, "Where have I heard that before?"

What's more, Obama took lines from Patrick, his campaign's co-chairman, three times. Clinton apparently plagiarized her opponent three times and grabbed phrases from Bill Clinton in three other speeches.

The crisscrossing arrows of the Times graphic demonstrates that each enduring candidate (including John McCain) is guilty of some borrowing.

Obama, however, has plumbed a deep pool of rhetorical influences, from Transcendental poets to neoconservative presidents, and his source material is worth examining as he rolls toward the Democratic nomination.

His exultant speech on Super Tuesday is the best example of Obama's channeling Walt Whitman's verse. The senator often employs one of the poet's signature flourishes-the egalitarian cataloging of people and places.

Highlighting his ability to attract voters across geographic and demographic lines, he proclaimed: "What began as a whisper in Springfield soon carried across the cornfields of Iowa, where farmers and factory workers, students and seniors stood up ... Their voices echoed from the hills of New Hampshire to the deserts of Nevada, where cooks and kitchen workers stood up ... "

Whitman sings an Obamaesque campaign pledge in "Leaves of Grass:" "Of these one and all I weave the song of myself . A Southerner soon as a Northerner . At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the Texas Ranch/Comrade of Californians."

The senator also shares the poet's affinity for conjuring Abraham Lincoln. In 2005, Obama launched his campaign at Lincoln's presidential library in Illinois and compared himself to the muse for Whitman's most famous poems. He described a "tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer" who "taught us there was power in words," "conviction" and "hope." And, on Super Tuesday, he stole Lincoln's famous, "A house divided cannot stand," line without attributing it, though nobody accused him of plagiarism then.

In the footsteps of Whitman, Obama sings a distinctly American song, frequently citing a diverse group of icons from Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Martin Luther King to Ronald Reagan.

But there's also a 21st century politician from whom Obama has borrowed: President George W. Bush.

Like Bush, Obama often addresses policy positions in simple, perhaps vague, terms and focuses on resonant ideas, like change and hope. Clinton's demand for policy specifics is a knee-jerk Democratic reaction, the same instinct that torpedoed the torpid campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry. Instead, Obama has trounced her in the battle of images and impressions.

Like Bush, Obama has set the agenda in this race. Gore and Kerry were forever defending themselves on Bush's core issues, like national security, and struggled to shift the conversation to more favorable terms. But Obama has made the 2008 campaign about change, even as Clinton herself has derisively compared it to Bush's 2000 effort. Clinton's experience-touting strategy failed and now McCain seems to be eagerly lurching into the same trap.

Finally, like Bush, Obama has a fanatical base of supporters. The senator's ability to inspire attracted a monster grassroots network of donors and volunteers, which has outperformed Clinton's in many contests.

This inspirational capacity has even been criticized as if he should apologize for rejuvenating disillusioned voters and attracting young people to politics. The criticism suggests that the right is still grappling to discern the Obama riddle.

The senator has worked hard to earn his supporters. Bush's base was fueled by evangelical Christians, a powerful voting bloc that helped Republican Mike Huckabee win several primaries. If Obama is somehow fostering a cult of personality among his loyalists, then Bush was merely exploiting the cult of Christianity. McCain, meanwhile, will not likely enjoy the volunteerism Bush did from that branch of the Republican coalition.

The tendency to compare Obama to other political heroes, and its inevitable inefficacy, proves nothing but that he's an original, the likes of whom-for better or worse-we've