Former Biden Speechwriter Nate Rawlings on Claudine Gay, Neil Gorsuch, and the Politics of Plagiarism
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Journalist Nate Rawlings, who spent a stint as a speechwriter for then-Vice President Joe Biden, joins co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan to talk about the politics (and nuances) of plagiarism. Rawlings discusses how plagiarism accusations derailed Joe Biden’s presidential run in 1987. He examines how the right-wing activist-led plagiarism accusations against former Harvard President Claudine Gay fit into the context of prior plagiarism scandals, and considers the possibility that new technologies like AI will intensify future politically motivated attacks. He also reflects on why some plagiarism allegations stick and shift opinion, and others don’t.
From the episode:
Whitney Terrell: You were a speechwriter for Joe Biden when he was Obama’s vice president. But before you worked for Biden, he was embroiled in a plagiarism scandal that helped end his presidential campaign in 1987 and 1988. Were you and other staffers, when you came on to work for him, aware of that whole deal?
Nate Rawlings: Yeah, so first of all, Whitney, it’s great to see you and not in Baghdad (that’s where we met the first time). And on a quick personal note, we spent a lot of time during that trip and in the years since then talking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. And I don’t think we ever envisioned that I would be a White House speechwriter. That was a wonderful opportunity and very fortuitous, and another story for another time.
So when I was preparing to interview with then Vice President Biden in the summer of 2015, I read everything I could get my hands on, everything that he’d written, everything that was written about him. So I was certainly aware of some instances in his long political career where he may have been, let’s just say, less than careful, in his citations and things like that. But I think that the incident you’re going for here is the Neil Kinnock one.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: For listeners who might not remember the 1987 incident, I’ll just give you all the details. In September of ’87, a campaign staffer for Michael Dukakis gave a videotape to a Des Moines Register political reporter.
WT: That’s a name you don’t hear much anymore.
VVG: Yes, Michael Dukakis, my childhood political hero, gave a videotape to a Des Moines Register political reporter named David Jepsen. And per the Washington Post, the tape showed, “A side by side comparison of Biden’s remarks at a recent debate with the statement of a fiery British politician Neil Kinnock.” So here are the remarks. Again, all of this comes from a 2019 Washington Post article by Neena Satija which we’ll link to in our show notes. So one clip on the tape had this quote from Kinnock. “Why am I the first Kinnock in 1000 generations to be able to get to university?” he asks him –
WT: You’re supposed to do that in a British accent, Sugi! What is going on?
NR: Welsh, he was Welsh.
WT: Oh sorry, Welsh then.
VVG: “Why am I the first Kinnock in 1000 generations to be able to get to university?” he asks in the speech. I won’t subject anyone to the rest of that. Referring to his ancestors, some of whom were coal miners, he asks, “Was it because all our predecessors were thick? Those people who could sing and play and recite and write poetry, those people who could work eight hours underground and then come up and play football?” And then that was juxtaposed with Biden’s remarks at the close of a debate at the Iowa State Fair. “Why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university? ‘Is it because I’m the first Biden in 1000 generations to get a college undergraduate degree? That I was smarter than the rest? 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?’” Does this count as political plagiarism?
NR: So at the risk of sounding a little bit like our university presidents from their disastrous congressional hearing, I will say that depends on the context. In this case, if you look at the literal definition of plagiarism, did then-Senator Biden use the words of others without giving proper attribution? Yes. But I think it’s helpful to look at the entire situation and what was going on in that summer of ’87, in that ’87 campaign. And so for any of your listeners who are interested in getting the full story and the full picture on this, or who are just interested in modern presidential politics, required reading is a book by Richard Ben Cramer called What It Takes, a classic tome where he wrote about the entire ’87 campaign and followed all the major candidates throughout the trail. It’s like 1000 pages. And Cramer, I think, dedicated six or seven chapters just to this particular incident, the lead-up to it, the actual incident itself, where here at the Iowa State Fair, in his closing there, and then the sort of fallout from afterwards.
And so I think it’s instructive to remember that in that summer of ’87, Biden was a 44-year-old senator who had almost 15 years in the Senate, but he was also this sort of young firebrand Democrat and kind of New Democrat, who sort of shot from the hip a little bit and gave these passionate speeches that people really connected with. Now, at the same time that he was running for president, he was also the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and he was overseeing the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice nominee Robert Bork. Bork was a hugely controversial nominee, a judge, former law professor who had written just things that a lot of Americans didn’t agree with about privacy, about the nature of our Constitution, and was seen, especially by the Democrats and by the left, as a disastrous candidate who was going to take us off into Armageddon. So as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden also was sort of leading the campaign to interrogate this enormous record that Judge Bork had and prevent him from being confirmed to the Supreme Court. So at the same time that he’s campaigning in Iowa, and he’s campaigning in New Hampshire, he’s also back in Washington and doing the strategy sessions with legal scholars and trying to manage these two very complex things at the same time.
And so the way that Cramer reports this out, and the way that it’s written in the book, is that Biden flew into Iowa at the last minute for that state fair. And he didn’t have a closing and he didn’t have a closing written out. And so he told one of the staffers, he said, “I’ll just do the Kinnock thing” that he’d been doing for most of that summer. And so throughout that campaign, Biden had been quoting Neil Kinnock by name. He had been referencing that speech that he found to be really powerful and passionate. And this time he just kind of got way over his skis, incorporated huge quotes from that and sort of enveloped them into his own life narrative. Sloppy? Yes. Do I think that Senator Biden sat down and wrote out a speech with the intent to not give proper attribution to Mr. Kinnock? I don’t think so. And in fact, when Biden was elected in 2020, one of the first people to publicly congratulate him and say that this is a great thing was Neil Kinnock, who’s had a long and illustrious career in both British and European politics.
WT: One thing I noticed when I was reading back about this is how quaint it seemed that his whole campaign would get derailed because he had quoted the guy in other places, and he just forgot this time. But that really did stop his campaign. I’m comparing it to today where former President Trump can say he wants to kill generals who oppose him, and everyone’s like, “Yeah, whatever, he’s fine. It’s gonna be good.”
And anyway, one thing that I want to talk about is how to deal with these accusations of plagiarism, because, as in Watergate, a lot of times the coverup is worse than the actual thing. I mean, the thing that they did, which I’m going to assume you’re going to tell me is a bad idea, is they were like, “That was the one time he did this. That’s it. He’s never ever done this before.” So how would you have handled this if you had been on the staff at the time?
NR: Well, yeah, first of all, you never want to say anything is an isolated incident, especially something as broad as a campaign, because then reporters are obviously going to dig further into everything that’s been said. I agree with you that this seems very quaint because we had four years of a president who said, as far as I know, next to nothing that was true and just outright fabrications, [he] made things up and then just wild outrageous and crazy [things].
WT: I know! Right now saying that the insurrection didn’t happen, or it was a beautiful day? I mean, that’s just crazy stuff compared to “Okay, I borrowed a couple lines from Neil Kinnock.”
NR: Yeah, or outright channeling, you know, or maybe borrowing without attribution, lines from Hitler in your speeches? You know, we’re seeing a little bit of that going on right now. So yeah, in some ways, I think in a modern political context, this would have been a little bit of a one-off story. The problem that they had was that it was part of a larger context of things that reporters were starting to dig up where there were little exaggerations or other parts of his record, which we can talk about more. But then ultimately, it snowballed into the reporters, because as Sugi said, at the end of this, he talked about, you know, “My ancestors who were coal miners coming up out of the coal mines.”
And so the question that the campaign was getting was, does Biden actually have any members of the family or ancestors who were coal miners? And I believe the answer to that is no. Huge problem there. And it’s sort of gone down into this rabbit hole of what is true and what is not. And so I don’t think this one isolated incident, while it is the sort of most well documented and probably most famous one, this one isolated incident is not what killed that candidacy. It was a lot of little things kind of snowballing along the way
Transcribed by Otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Madelyn Valento.
“The North’s Jim Crow” by Andrew W. Kahrl|The New York Times, May 27, 2018 • “How We Squeezed Harvard to Push Claudine Gay Out” by Christopher Rufo | Wall Street Journal • Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America by Cody Keenan • What It Takes: The Way to the White House by Richard Ben Cramer • “Plagiarism charges downed Harvard’s president. A conservative attack helped to fan the outrage” by Collin Binkley and Moriah Balingit | AP • Elise Stefanik • Claudine Gay • “Echoes of Biden’s 1987 plagiarism scandal continue to reverberate” by Neena Satija | The Washington Post, June 5, 2019 • Democratic Primary Debate, August 23, 1987 • Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 6, Episode 46, “Samuel G. Freedman on What Hubert Humphrey’s Fight for Civil Rights Can Teach Us Today” • Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 6, Episode 16, “Chatbot vs. Writer: Vauhini Vara on the Perils and Possibilities of Artificial Intelligence” • Nadia Schadlow, Small Wars Journal • Peggy Noonan • “Boys of Pont du Hoc” speech by Peggy Noonan for Ronald Reagan, June 6, 1984 • “I see the boys of summer,” by Dylan Thomas