Editorial: Stuck With Bill’s Bills

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday February 26, 2008

“I am never forget the day I first meet the great Lobachevsky. 

In one word he told me secret of success in mathematics: Plagiarize!” 



Let no one else’s work evade your eyes, 

Remember why the good Lord made your eyes, 

So don’t shade your eyes, 

But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize... 

Only be sure always to call it please, “research.” 


Let’s just say right here up top, to avoid any issues, that these words were first penned (or sung with a heavy Slavic accent) by that brilliant incisive social critic Tom Lehrer, as transcribed for the Internet audience by one Graeme Cree (thank you, Graeme, whoever you are.) 

For anyone too young or socially isolated to be unfamiliar with the oeuvre, Cree’s site includes this thumbnail bio: “Tom Lehrer is a schoolteacher who enjoyed a career during the 1950s and 1960s as a satirical songwriter. If you’ve never heard him, he’s very similar to Mark Russell, except that he’s funny.”  

The unsubstantiated rumor is that Lehrer gave up satire when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace prize. He actually is (or was) a working mathematician, whatever that might mean, and he’s also taught musical theater courses at Santa Cruz from time to time.  

And never forget: He, like Barack Obama, can claim to be “Harvard-trained.” Perhaps this could explain why Hillary went off so oddly on Obama last week: a lingering suspicion on the part of Mrs. Clinton, who trained at a rival institution, that those Harvard guys like Lehrer and Obama don’t take plagiarism seriously enough. But sadly, people just laughed at her, especially after that attempt at a quip in the last debate about “change you can xerox.” 

But seriously: plagiarism. Experts of all stripes have been having a field day making fun of the Clinton campaign’s misuse of a serious word that means taking someone else’s work and passing it off as your own. This is definitely this week’s winner of the “What Were They Thinking” award.  

Plagiarism is a big deal in the academic context, where the basic work product is ideas and the expression of them. Everywhere else, even in intellectual property law, the concept gets vaguer and vaguer. You can’t copyright ideas, and there are strict legal limits on copyrighting particular expressions of ideas.  

In the pop music world it’s called “covering” or “sampling” someone else’s work, and it’s done all the time, with and without permission, and without a second thought. In tonier arts circles, it’s “hommage.” Classical composers often reprise tunes from their own work or the work of predecessors in new pieces—they call it “quoting.” Even (or especially) Shakespeare did it, all the time with no evident embarrassment. 

Words still have meaning, even in politics, and “plagiarism” is the wrong word in the wrong place at the wrong time. The next thing you know, Clinton’s overpaid consultants will be scripting her to say that Obama stole “It’s time for a change” from long-forgotten ’50s Republican candidate Thomas Dewey and the legions who used the slogan after Dewey made it popular, or perhaps that he lifted “let’s look at the record” from 1920s Democrat Al Smith.  

It’s hard to believe, as the financial reports indicate, that she paid these lame consultants something in the neighborhood of $5 million at a point when she would have to drop a similar amount of her own money into her own campaign. (And parenthetically, where exactly did the Clintons get that kind of money to throw around? Why won’t they release their tax returns?) 

It’s getting to be much too easy to dump on Hillary Clinton, a bright woman who would probably be an achiever in any job she tried. But it was her own voice on the tape shrilly castigating the Obama campaign for sending out mailers linking her to support for NAFTA. Yes, yes, I know that only women are accused of being shrill: I’ve faced that problem myself on more than one occasion. Perhaps it was not her tone of voice but her choice of words: “Shame on you, Barack Obama!” Whatever her intention, the whole speech evoked an annoying pharmaceutical commercial of a decade ago: “What’s a mother to do?” 

And the fact is, as many many commentators have pointed out, Bill did push NAFTA through, whether or not Hillary might privately have told him it was a bad idea. She can’t have it both ways, taking credit for experience when she participated in his successes, but trying to duck responsibility for his many long-lasting mistakes. As for her “shocked shocked” characterization of Obama’s healthcare position and his characterization of her position, we’ve all seen the debates. Most of what the two candidates don’t exactly agree on amounts to distinction without difference.  

More and more, this primary campaign is turning into a referendum on the Clinton years, whether that’s good or bad. On my favorite radio program, Left, Right and Center (KALW, Fridays at 5 or whenever you want online) there’s a center guy sandwiched in among Tony Blankley (Right), Bob Scheer (Left) and Arianna Huffington (somewhere out in left field). He’s such a mild-mannered centrist I can never remember his name or who he is. He politely raised the point that a problem with Obama might be that he doesn’t seem to be acknowledging the achievements of Bill Clinton and the New Democrats, like “welfare reform.”  

Well, yes. Guess what, that’s what a lot of real Democrats, the regular old-fashioned kind, like about Obama. He seems to be prepared to jettison the worst failures of the Clinton era, like a welfare reform program that’s left a lot of working families in poverty with—still—no one to look after the kids. That’s a column for another day, but many old-school liberals are openly cheering the sunset of the Democratic Leadership Council’s domination of presidential politics. 

It’s not quite too late for Hillary Clinton to distinguish herself and her own record from that of Bill Clinton, whose place in history is hard to escape at this point. He seems to have stepped out of the spotlight in the last week or so, but she’s still in his shadow. If she could bring herself to offer flat-out criticisms of some of his policy mistakes, it might, just might, salvage what’s left of her chances.