Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., trying to control mounting damage to his drive for the Democratic presidential nomination, admitted Thursday that he had committed plagiarism during his first year of law school but called the controversy surrounding his borrowed passages in recent speeches “much ado about nothing.”
In his most detailed response to the controversy, which began during the weekend, Biden told a news conference that he “did something very stupid 23 years ago,” by lifting five pages from a law review article for a brief he wrote in a legal methods class at the University of Syracuse.
But he said he cleared his record by repeating the course and getting an “F” changed to a “B.”
“I was mistaken, but I was not in any way malevolent,” Biden said.
He also defended several instances of using material from other people’s speeches, saying all candidates do it. He said fellow Democratic candidate Jesse Jackson has telephoned him to say that he, too, has used unattributed material. “I don’t know anybody who has run for public office who has tried to communicate a great idea who hasn’t gone back and used other great ideas” to convey a message, Biden said.
“I am being honest,” he said. “The American people will judge.”
Biden said the barrage of negative publicity will not drive him out of the presidential contest. “I’m in this race to stay,” he declared. “I’m in this race to win--and here I come.”
Nevertheless, many political analysts believe the controversy--which began with the disclosure that Biden used passages from a British politician’s speech without attributing them--threatens to demolish Biden’s campaign. The controversy comes at a time when Biden could have gained positive publicity because of his position as chairman of the high-profile Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Robert H. Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
“I don’t say both his legs have been cut off, but he’s limping,” said John White, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “Every campaign has its theme,” he said, and “1988 is the year of integrity,” in part because of the backlash to the Iran- contra affair and Gary Hart’s disastrous relationship with Miami model Donna Rice. On that theme Biden may now be found lacking, several analysts said.
Larry Sabato, professor of government at the University of Virginia, said: “In my mind, this completely eliminates him from consideration” for the nomination. “A plagiarist can clearly not be in the White House.”
Biden, who spoke carefully and sometimes testily during his 30-minute news conference, suggested that opponents alerted the media to his law school plagiarism and unattributed use of the speech passages, but he did not name any campaign. “It is no coincidence,” he said, that the disclosures surfaced as the Bork hearings were about to begin.
Biden’s troubles began Saturday, when the New York Times and Des Moines Register noted the similarities between a rousing speech made by Neil Kinnock, the British Labor Party leader, and one delivered by Biden at a presidential debate at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 23.
Biden initially said the Iowa State Fair speech was the only time he had failed to credit Kinnock. However, three days later, in an interview with the National Education Assn., he again failed to credit the Briton after borrowing passages from him.
In one passage, Kinnock had asked: “Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? . . . Was it because our predecessors were so thick?”
Biden’s version was: “I was thinking to myself why was it that I was the first person, the first Biden to in probably a thousand generations to go to university and to law school. . . . Was it because our mothers and fathers were not as smart as we were?”
Biden staff members in Iowa subsequently produced a tape of Biden at another event crediting Kinnock. But, in that appearance, Biden said he had received a videotape of the Kinnock speech from “a leader of another country.” In fact, he received it from William Schneider, a Washington political consultant and Los Angeles Times political analyst, who shared the tape with several candidates.
Biden acknowledged in the press conference that he had not received the tape from a world leader but discounted the misstatement as “a matter of extra exuberance.”
Biden’s problems deepened when other newspapers noted similarities between a Biden speech to the California Democratic Party in February and rhetoric by the late Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy, at Fordham University in June, 1967, said: “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself. But each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”
Biden’s unattributed version was: “Few of us have the greatness to bend history itself. But each of us can act to affect a small portion of events, and in the totality of these acts will be written the history of this generation.”
On Thursday, Biden confronted rumors of plagiarism during his law school years by disclosing that he did not quote or footnote the material he borrowed from the law review, an omission noted by a classmate who critiqued his paper.
When he was confronted by the law school dean, Biden admitted his actions and asked for a chance to explain them to the faculty. He wrote a two-page letter on his mistake and asked the faculty for a chance to recoup.
In his letter written in 1965, Biden said his plagiarism was the result of “my mistaken notion” of what a legal brief was supposed to be.
Biden was given an “F” in the course and the chance to retake it the next year. He did so and earned a “B,” now reflected in his record.
The law school dean also wrote a memo that pondered whether the plagiarism would raise a character question that could prevent Biden from being admitted to the bar. But he wrote that Biden’s future performance in law school would clear up that problem.
A letter from the next dean, after Biden had graduated, called him “a gentleman of high moral character.”
Biden received some support from his Senate colleagues Thursday.
“He is absolutely, totally credible. . . . He is a very strong, honest man,” said Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz). Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), another presidential candidate, said, “I have complete confidence in Joe Biden’s integrity and ability.”
Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) added, “I think it’s always a good idea to attribute quotes, but I don’t think he deserves capital punishment for running a red light.”
But Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), who is considering a presidential bid, said the flap could hurt Biden’s campaign. “Anything can be fatal in this day and age,” she said.
William Carrick, campaign manager for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, said the episode “probably fuels more cynicism among the public and ultimately will hurt everybody. I don’t think any campaign can take any joy in this.”
J. Joseph Grandmaison, state chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said that “the timing couldn’t be worse” for Biden because the Bork hearings give him great visibility, and for many people the controversy will be “the first thing one hears about him.”
Anne Lewis, Biden’s campaign director in New Hampshire, said she had received calls of support from her six state coordinators and a dozen or so of the campaign’s 70-member steering committee. She played down the problem, saying, “It’s pretty much business as usual here.”
But David Moore, a political scientist and pollster at the University of New Hampshire, said the developments were “devastating, absolutely devastating” to Biden’s campaign. “I would say his chances of recovering are virtually zilch.”
Also contributing to this story were Bob Drogin, James Risen and Robert Shogan.