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Goeglein, The Plagiarist Too Easily Forgiven

In “Quotation and Originality” (1875), Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “Some men’s words I remember so well that I must often use them to express my thought. Yes, because I perceive that we have heard the same truth, but they have heard it better.” But he also wrote, “Quotation confesses inferiority” (ibid.), which appears in Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases alongside “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” an abject lie for which it seems nobody wants to take credit.

I’ve heard this lie repeated or alluded to several times since learning that Timothy S. Goeglein, the deputy director of the White House’s Office of Public Liaison, resigned when it was discovered that he’d plagiarized at least twenty of the thirty-eight columns he contributed to the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, the newspaper of his Indiana hometown. The first instance of plagiarism was brought to light by the blogger Nancy Nall, a former columnist at the News-Sentinel, when she noticed “what seemed to be merely a case of egregiously obscure name-dropping” and Googled it out of pure curiosity. Here is the offending drop:

A notable professor of philosophy at Dartmouth College in the last century, Eugene Rosenstock-Hussey [sic], expressed the matter succinctly. His wisdom is not only profound but also worth pondering in this new century. He said, “The goal of education is to form the Citizen. And the Citizen is a person who, if need be, can re-found his civilization.”

These words, along with several subsequent paragraphs, were cut from a 1998 Dartmouth Review essay by Professor Emeritus Jeffrey Hart. As a former editor of The Dartmouth Review and an admirer of Prof. Hart, I was disappointed by his reaction to Goeglein’s apology: “I told him I was flattered he’d used it. It doesn’t damage him in my estimation at all. I’m glad he spread the word.” He told the Review that it should “take a bow” for publishing material good enough to get noticed. (Now imagine your Merc’s been stolen, and a cop is patting you on the back for having owned such a desirable automobile.)

To complain that Prof. Hart is sending the wrong message is itself to send the wrong message, which is that eighteen- to twenty-one-year-olds require a “positive role model” to explain why the theft of words is inexcusable. But even if one knows instinctively that stealing a fine phrase or, God forbid, a column is a pathetic way to make a “name” for oneself, he may not immediately appreciate why feeling flattered by the theft flies past the permissive or mildly egotistical into the ridiculous.

“Self-Googling” is one of the simple pleasures — you might say one of the vices — of the writer. There is nothing like discovering that a colleague or fan has enjoyed one’s work enough to quote from it. Theft is another matter, because it suggests merely that one’s work was adequate to excite the applause or envy of some cipher without a voice of his own. I suspect that an ambitious musician who finds his audience full of shrieking ten-year-old girls understands this sorry exchange only too well.

I doubt that Prof. Hart was aware, when he made his comments, of the extent of the cutting and pasting. According to Nancy Nall, Goeglein lifted lengthy passages from such distinguished writers as Eric Ormsby, Jonathan Yardley, and, believe it or not, the Pope. (The opening line of Goeglein’s tribute to William F. Buckley Jr., “Friendship, at its best, is a foretaste of heaven,” was taken, I just now determined, from Aelred of Rievaulx, the patron saint of bladder-stone sufferers. You can’t make this stuff up.) I don’t believe that Prof. Hart would have granted Goeglein the same indulgence had he known the truth. He’d have seen that, to borrow from Ms. Nall, Goeglein “is a man who simply thought he’d found the perfect place to satisfy his need to be an intellectual — a paper hardly anyone reads.”

Beyond that, what was Goeglein thinking? He reminds one a little of Pierre Menard, the subject of Jorge Luis Borges’s eponymous short story, who “did not want to compose another Quixote—which is easy—but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide — word for word and line for line — with those of Miguel de Cervantes.” Did Goeglein believe that appreciation is equal to creation? The sad fact is that no one who thinks that way has really appreciated to begin with.

I’ve heard a few objections to a supposed “double standard”: Haven’t other possible plagiarists, like Barack Obama and Columbia University’s Madonna Constantine, skirted scrutiny for their own thefts? There’s only one standard, which either is upheld or isn’t: If you love something, attribute it. There’s no shame in confessing a little inferiority. I’ll do it right now. Emerson again:

We are as much informed of a writer’s genius by what he selects as by what he originates. We read the quotation with his eyes, and find a new and fervent sense; as a passage from one of the poets, well recited, borrows new interest from the rendering. As the journalists say, “the italics are ours.”

And I’ll sleep well tonight knowing that those italics are mine.

Stefan Beck is a writer living in Palo Alto, California. Mr. Beck has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, and other publications. He also blogs for The New Criterion’s Armavirumque, and Jewcy’s Cabal.