COLUMN

Peccadillos and presidents

Allan Fotheringham September 28 1987
COLUMN

Peccadillos and presidents

Allan Fotheringham September 28 1987

Peccadillos and presidents

COLUMN

Allan Fotheringham

There seems a new standard now in disqualifying chaps who aspire to the White House, that being the abode of the most powerful person on earth. Peccadillos, they are called. Personal foibles, once revealed by the post-Watergate press that is ever vigilant, doom a presidential candidate. Gary, as they say, was within six inches of the White House. No more. Now another has fallen by the wayside. Senator Joe Biden, the most riveting orator in the Democratic party (save perhaps Teddy Kennedy, and we won’t mention his problem), has been brought down for theft. Stealing other people’s words.

Poor Joe. He had been advertised as one of the great stump speakers, right up there with John Diefenbaker, the finest actor who ever strayed into politics. Like Dief, Biden could make the microphones tremble and sometimes sob. He was a little thin on legislative accomplishments in his 15 years in Congress, but at a time when the available Democratic presidential hopefuls are known as the “seven dwarfs,” his eloquence was supposed to lift him above the herd.

The problem is that too much of it was someone else’s eloquence. One of his helpful friends supplied him with a tape of the arresting TV commercial by British Labour Leader Neil Kinnock that originally frightened the bejesus out of Maggie Thatcher’s troops at the start of her election campaign. Passionate and beguiling, it went back to the mining roots of Kinnock’s ancestors, demanding as to why they never had a chance to go to university. The passionate Biden—on “autopilot” as one aide tried to explain—translated this into his own purported mining family and, Kinnock word for Kinnock word, forgot to credit the attribution.

Once wounded, the boy was ripe for plucking. Anonymous foes, both Democrat and Republican, were eager to supply the press with other stray Biden orations that were pilfered from John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Hubert

Allan Fotheringham is a columnist for Southam News.

Humphrey. Topped off by the fact that the aspirant to the White House had been caught, 22 years ago in law school, doing a little short-cutting in an essay by including a hunk from a law journal. Just at the moment when Joe, as head of the Senate judiciary committee, was chairing the nationally televised hearings into the truthability of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Goodbye, Mr. Biden: gonzo alonzo.

It is an honored political tradition, word theft. As one esteemed Washington speech writer says, “If every politician who ever borrowed a phrase was

arrested, the jails would be full.” Biden’s sin was that he was rather too blatant, inviting scrutiny, somewhat like Gary Hart. Most robbers, being most politicians, are more discreet.

Winston Churchill, in his famous Fulton, Mo., speech, supposedly enshrined the term “Iron Curtain” in the language forever. In fact, he stole it from, of all people, Joseph Goebbels. Franklin Delano Roosevelt roused the American people from the torpor of the Depression with the ringing words “The only thing to fear is fear itself.” He’s credited endlessly with the genius of that cry, but it goes back to many progenitors, including the Bible itself, which basically said it all.

Pierre Trudeau’s most memorable quote, probably, was his phrase while justice minister that helped propel him into the Liberal leadership: “There is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” His speech writers stole it from an editorial, two days previous, in The Globe and Mail

written by one Martin O’Malley. As Casey Stengel said, you could look it up. Nowhere in the Trudeau encomiums is there an asterisk (see Roger Maris) to O’Malley.

Such is life. (Life is hard. Then you die.—Anon.) The most popular president in the history of the U.S. and A. is a renowned thief. He does it effortlessly, off the back of his hand, if not his head. He is fond of describing American democracy as “the last great hope on earth.” We will not analyse that, merely note that he lifts it without attribution from Roosevelt, who lifted it without attribution from Abe Lincoln. Joe Biden has honorable examples before him. His only problem is that they were in power. Aspirants have to be more careful.

Reagan won universal sympathy for his cool after being shot by the nut John Hinckley in 1981, for quipping to Nancy on the way into the operating room, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” That was lifted from the famous line by the chagrined Jack Dempsey, to his wife, after the Manassa Mauler had been astonishly defeated by Gene Tunney, the gentleman boxer who read Shakespeare, for the world heavyweight championship in 1926.

Reagan’s memory runs deep. When he said, of the Arab terrorists he vowed to catch after the hijacking of U.S. jetliners, “They can run, but they can’t hide,” he was hijacking the famous phrase uttered by the monosyllabic Joe Louis before his long-awaited second fight with Billy Conn.

Bobby Kennedy, now cited as one of the icons from whom Joe Biden has stolen whole passages, used as his closing theme in almost every speech a soaring thought lifted holus-bolus from George Bernard Shaw, never attributed. Jack Kennedy’s great thoughts were all ghostwritten—as confirmed now by all his ghostwriters who are pummelling Biden.

The answer, I suppose, is to be Bill Vander Slap, who, as far as anyone can determine, has never read a book and therefore cannot steal from anyone. There are gifts to being an original. However brief.