Writing at the website “FutureofCapitalism.com,” former New York Sun vice-president and managing editor Ira Stoll, who is also author of a biography of Sam Adams, thought something sounded very familiar when he listened to President Barack Obama’s speech last night. Stoll had been reading the new book by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. What Stoll found is that a paragraph in the president’s speech was taken directly from their new book, without attribution.
Stoll gives his blog the title “Presidential Plagiarist?” The title has a question mark, because as you can see, it is actually a scaled down précis of the paragraph written by Friedman and Mandelbaum. Anyone can see, however, that it is taken directly from their book. Usually, when a writer or speechmaker does this, he has a phrase that would say “as the authors of a new book have pointed out…” to make it clear that the information is not the speaker’s insight. I recall in the ’80s listening to a Reagan speech on television about Nicaragua, in which he attributed an insight to an article by my friend Robert Leiken that had appeared in an op-ed column a few days earlier.
So you decide whether or not this is a case of plagiarism. Here is what Ira Stoll writes:
“There are plenty of other points to make about President Obama’s speech on jobs, but one thing that leaped right out at me was how one section was lifted, without any credit, from Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s new book That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.”
Here is Mr. Obama:
“We all remember Abraham Lincoln as the leader who saved our Union. But in the middle of a Civil War, he was also a leader who looked to the future – a Republican president who mobilized government to build the transcontinental railroad; launch the National Academy of Sciences; and set up the first land grant colleges.”
Here are Messrs. Friedman and Mandelbaum, on pages 37 to 38:
“Abraham Lincoln is best known, of course, for presiding over the federal government during the Civil War, but during that conflict his administration passed several landmark pieces of legislation that spurred America’s transition from an agrarian to an industrial society. One was the Homestead Act of 1862, which opened up the West for settlement by anyone who had not fought against the Union. Another was the Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864, which connected the eastern to the western part of the country and so laid the basis for a truly national economy. A third was the Morrill Act of 1862, which established a system of land-grant colleges, giving rise to institutions of higher education from Georgia to Californian and from Minnesota to Texas. …Lincoln signed the National Academy of Sciences into being on March 3, 1863, to bring together America’s best researchers to ‘investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science or art’ whenever called upon to do so by any department of the government. Remarkably, all of this happened while we were fighting a civil war.”
Next time, the president’s speechwriters should be more careful or more honest. Or do they want their boss to be known as the plagiarist-in-chief?