One measure of a savvy politician is how he handles his mistakes. Expressing nostalgia for the days when one could shoot or stab a critic is not a great PR move.
Rand Paul, the Republican U.S. senator from Kentucky who has been accused of serial plagiarism, is melting under the heat.
The freshman senator, beloved by the tea party and touted as a potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate, has lashed out at the reporters who have discovered his borrowings, calling them "hacks and haters."
MSNBC's Rachel Maddow noted last week that Paul lifted language from the Wikipedia entry on the sci-fi movie "Gattaca" for a speech he gave in Virginia at the end of October.
"Nothing I said was not given attribution to where it came from," Paul told Fusion's Jorge Ramos. "I talked about a movie. … The rest of it's making a mountain out of a molehill from people I think basically who are political enemies and have an ax to grind.
"It's a disagreement on how you footnote things."
A spokesman for one of the think tanks, the Heritage Foundation, told Buzzfeed it did not object. After all, the foundation is in the business of supplying conservative lawmakers with intellectual ammunition. But just because your victim doesn't press charges doesn't mean you haven't done something wrong.
This week, the fallout began.
On Wednesday night, the Louisville Courier-Journal wondered in a sternly worded editorial, "Rand Paul-agiarism," whether Paul was "a politician or a parrot."
A day earlier, the Washington Times announced that it had "mutually agreed" with Paul to drop his weekly column after the paper discovered he lifted a passage from the Week for his Sept. 20 piece critiquing mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes. In its news story announcing the severed relationship, the Washington Times explained:
"Mr. Paul took personal responsibility for the oversights, which he and aides said were caused by staff providing him background materials that were not properly footnoted. But the Kentucky Republican, a possible 2016 White House candidate, also said he was being held by the news media to a higher standard than other politicians."
The newspaper also noted that Paul told CNN, "They're now going back and reading every book from cover to cover and looking for places where we footnoted correctly and don't have quotation marks in the right places or we didn't indent correctly."
Yup, that's exactly what "they" do when a prominent national figure is accused of plagiarism. They whip out the old fine-tooth comb.
Sadly, it's not even news that a politician with presidential aspirations does not even pretend to be the author of the words that come out of his mouth or run below his name. But whether the lifting was intentional does not absolve the senator of responsibility.
Lashing out makes him look uninformed, paranoid and, frankly, not very mature.
"I think I am being unfairly targeted by a bunch of hacks and haters," he told ABC's Sunday morning program "This Week." "And I like to say, you know, if dueling were legal in Kentucky," he added, "if they keep it up, you know, it would be a duel challenge. But I can't do that because I can't hold office in Kentucky then."
Just what we need: honor killings.
Does Paul really want to be known as a Southern politician who pines for the days when duels were used to settle scores? He should ask Zell Miller, the former Democratic governor and U.S. senator from Georgia, who is known not for years of public service but for his bizarre 2007 explosion at Chris Matthews: "I wish we lived in the day when you could challenge a person to a duel. That'd be pretty good."
(When Rand said he couldn't hold office in Kentucky if he dueled, by the way, he wasn't joking. The legal humor blog, Lowering the Bar, noted in 2009 that the Kentucky Constitution requires state officeholders to swear they have never fought a duel or challenged anyone to a duel, or acted as a second in one.)
If Paul were as smart as he thinks he is, he would apologize, vow to be vigilant against future intellectual theft and take his lumps.
That may not be as satisfying as challenging Rachel Maddow to a duel.
But it is, in fact, the honorable thing to do.