I was taking notes on Barack Obama’s literary borrowings, in the unlikely even I would ever do anything with them. For example, he suggested we “hitch a wagon to something larger than ourselves,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson implored us to “Hitch your wagon to a star.” He also paraphrased one of Emerson’s greatest political aphorisms, “There are always two parties — the establishment and the movement. The party of the past, and the party of the future,” in his now famous description of the current election as being about “the past versus the future.” I started jotting them down not to hold Obama accountable for theft, but simply because I was delighted to find my favorite American philosopher was still in style.
I’ve read both of Senator Obama’s books, and have noticed other allusions, both tacit and explicit, to Franklin, Jefferson, and Lincoln. Rather than think Obama was a plagiarist, I appreciated that he’d done his homework and grounded himself in the great political writings of American History.
So I have a hard time of thinking of his speech about the power of words as being plagiarism. At least it’s not “plagiarism” the way it’s plagiarism to copy an entire essay and hand it in for school credit. Political writers and speakers are just wont to pull bits and pieces from other political writers and a speakers, and a short passage that is basically a string of quotes is particularly hard to call one person’s intellectual property. But if Obama is taken to task for quoting Martin Luther King in the same context that some other politician quoted Martin Luther King, I hope that Emerson gets a little credit for that past vs. the future thing… unless it turns out he stole that bit from Swedenborg or Carlyle, and knowing him, he probably did.