No Time to Cite Source, He Says : Biden Stirs Row by Using Lines From Briton’s Talk
A feud began brewing Saturday between the presidential campaigns of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) after published accounts that Biden had used part of a speech by a prominent British politician without giving him credit.
Biden acknowledged using the Briton’s lines without attribution. He said it had occurred only once, that he had been pressed for time and that “if I’d have thought, I would have attributed it to him.” But Biden said he had done no wrong, was not sorry--and had not even made a mistake.
Nevertheless, Biden said he would not do it again.
Sources in Biden’s campaign, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they suspected Gephardt’s organization of pointing out to reporters that Biden had used lines virtually verbatim from a British television commercial containing excerpts from a speech by Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock.
Joseph Trippi, Gephardt’s deputy national campaign manager, said: “It wasn’t us.”
Still, the incident served to further sour relations between the Biden and Gephardt campaigns.
“It is entirely possible,” said Eric Woolson, Biden’s press secretary in Iowa, “that this will only add to whatever less-than-great feelings that exist between the two campaigns right now. It is obvious from our standpoint that one of the other campaigns feels like Joe Biden is gaining on them.”
If Biden’s opponents and media commentators seize on this episode as a case of plagiarism, it would pose a threat to Biden’s candidacy because it would raise the issue of character, the same issue that drove then-front-runner Gary Hart from the Democratic presidential race last May.
The disclosure of Hart’s rendezvous with model Donna Rice focused attention on what his critics regarded as a character defect--womanizing. If the Biden episode is viewed as plagiarism, it would tend to support allegations that his personality is flawed by a lack of verbal discipline.
In his eagerness to get attention for his candidacy, Biden’s critics contend, he indulges in wisecracks, hyperbole and a lack of candor.
For example, as recently as Friday, at a forum for candidates at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Biden, along with the other Democratic candidates present, opposed tuition tax credits. Biden said he had never voted for them.
However, according to a legislative report card issued by the National Education Assn., Biden voted in 1978 against an amendment that would have deleted tuition tax credits.
Didn’t Recall Vote
After the forum, Biden said he did not remember such a vote.
The dispute Saturday over Biden’s use of part of the Kinnock TV commercial came after newspapers, including the Des Moines Register and the New York Times, published stories pointing out that Biden had taken lines from Kinnock for his closing statement in a debate at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 23.
The British Labor Party broadcast the Kinnock commercial during its campaign last May against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Tories. Despite Labor’s loss, the commercial, put together by the director of the movie “Chariots of Fire” and using music written by the composer of the “Chariots of Fire” theme, was credited with boosting Kinnock, the party’s leader, by nearly 20% in the polls.
Videotapes of the commercial, considered a media classic, were given to Biden and a number of other candidates and journalists by William Schneider, political consultant for the Los Angeles Times, who was in London to write about the British election.
Biden ‘Truly Moved’
In a telephone interview with The Times, Biden said the commercial “truly moved me.”
He cited Kinnock’s eloquence with the music as background. Speaking to an audience in his native Wales, the British political leader asked: “Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?” Pointing to his wife, he went on: “Why is Glenys the first woman in her family in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? Was it because all our predecessors were thick?”
Then, referring to Welsh coal miners among his ancestors, he asked why they had not prospered. “Did they lack talent? Those people who could sing and play and recite and write poetry? Those people who could make wonderful, beautiful things with their hands? Those people who could dream dreams, see visions? Why didn’t they get it? Was it because they were weak? Those people who could work eight hours underground and then come up and play football? Weak?
“Does anybody really think that they didn’t get what we had because they didn’t have the talent or the strength or the endurance or the commitment? Of course not. It was because there was no platform upon which they could stand.”
A Democratic Platform
Those lines, Biden said, “remind me of what the Democratic Party stands for--that we give people a platform, a place to stand.”
In his closing statement at the Iowa State Fair debate, Biden began:
“I started thinking as I was coming over here, why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university?”
Indicating his wife, he added: “Why is it that my wife, who is sitting out there in the audience, is the first in her family to ever go to college? Is it because our fathers and mothers were not bright? Is it because I’m the first Biden in a thousand generations to get a college and a graduate degree that I was smarter than the rest?”
Then, referring to his Irish kin, he said: “Those same people who read poetry and wrote poetry and taught me how to sing verse? Is it because they didn’t work hard? My ancestors, who worked in the coal mines of northeast Pennsylvania and would come up after 12 hours and play football for four hours? No, it’s not because they weren’t as smart. It’s not because they didn’t work as hard. It’s because they didn’t have a platform upon which to stand.”
In his interview with The Times, Biden conceded that he had not given Kinnock credit for the lines during his appearance at the fair.
“It was a two-minute closing,” Biden said. “There wasn’t a single thing wrong with what I did. The only thing that made it happen was time--the absolute two minutes. . . . If I’d have thought, I would have attributed it to him.”
Biden said the parallels between himself and Kinnock are true.
“So what if I didn’t attribute it to Kinnock? I can’t quite understand this. If I was making up who I was, then that’s one thing,” he said. “I’m quite frankly confused by the whole thing. Even if I didn’t (cite Kinnock), I do not understand what the big deal is. I guess I’m beginning to understand.”
In retrospect, Biden said, he would rather that he had credited Kinnock.
He agreed it would have been better to do so. Biden said he would go on using Kinnock’s lines--and to give him credit each time. “At a minimum I’m going say, ‘To paraphrase Neil Kinnock. . . .’
‘It Wasn’t Wrong’
“Am I sorry? No. Why would I be? First, it wasn’t wrong, secondly it wasn’t a mistake. And thirdly, it’s much to do about nothing.”
Biden called the dispute “a cheap shot.”
He said he had used Kinnock’s lines before his Iowa State Fair appearance and has used them in his speeches since--each time with full credit. At the state fair, Biden said, was the only time he had not cited his source.
Biden staffers produced an audio tape of Biden’s crediting Kinnock in Okoboji, Iowa, on Aug. 29. On the slightly garbled tape, Biden can be heard to say: “There was an advertisement in the last election (in Britain) and I was sent a copy of it. This advertisement for Neil Kinnock, the Labor Party candidate, expressed for me the best way to quickly say” what it is like to be a Democrat.
“And I apply it to myself,” Biden says on the tape.
Credit on Videotape
The Biden staffers also planned to produce a videotape of his appearance in Sioux City, Iowa, on Aug. 14, during a reception at the Siouxland Senior Center, where he spoke before a crowd of about 300. The Sooland Cable station filmed his address, in which he also is said to have credited Kinnock.
The Boston Globe on Aug. 30 said Biden acknowledged Kinnock when he used his lines in an address in New Hampshire. “Biden premiered his new theme, with credits to Neil Kinnock, the Labor Party leader,” the Globe story says.
Biden counts using Kinnock’s lines--with credit--about 20 times.
Although the Iowa fair appearance was a much larger gathering--nationally televised by C-SPAN, a cable network, and attended by numerous national reporters--Biden estimated that 20% of those in attendance had already heard him give Kinnock credit just a week earlier at a large Democratic Party event, called the Iowa Corn Boil.
In its story about Biden’s fair appearance, the Des Moines Register said it had been given a videotape by “an aide to one of Biden’s opponents, who spoke on the condition that he would not be named.” The Register called it “a novel use of video technology, to try to discredit a candidate.”
Staff writer Robert Shogan contributed to this story.