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A Brief History Of Politicians Lifting Words From Other Sources

Melania Trump, wife of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, speaks during the opening day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
J. Scott Applewhite
Melania Trump, wife of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, speaks during the opening day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

The legal scholar Richard Posner points out in The Little Book Of Plagiarism that The Bard himself was a "formidable plagiarist."

In one celebrated scene in Anthony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare borrows heavily from Plutarch's Life of Mark Antony. That borrowing extends to modern literature and even the visual arts, Posner argues.

Politics, of course, is no exception. So when parts of Melania Trump's RNC speech mirrored Michelle Obama's 2008 speech at the DNC, she joined a long list of accused political plagiarists.

Here is a brief history:

Vice President Biden (1987)

When now-Vice President Biden ran for president in 1987, he seemingly took a paragraph from U.K. Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock.

Per the Telgraph, here's Kinnock's original speech, which he delivered in May 1987:

"Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? Was it because our predecessors were thick? 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."

And the one Biden delivered in September of that same year:

"Why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go a university? Why is it that my wife ... is the first in her family to ever go to college? Is it because our fathers and mothers were not bright? ... Is it because they didn't work hard? My ancestors who worked in the coal mines of northeast Pennsylvania and would come after 12 hours and play football for four hours? It's because they didn't have a platform on which to stand."

That year Biden was also slammed for stealing five pages from a published law review article for a paper he wrote his first year of law school. He apologized for his law school transgression but told The New York Times at the time that concern over his lifting of political speeches was "'much ado about nothing."

President Obama (2008)

In 2008, when President Obama was running against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, the Clinton camp accused Obama of plagiarizing from former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

Per CBS, in 2008 Obama said:

"Don't tell me words don't matter! 'I have a dream.' Just words. 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' Just words. 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself.' Just words, just speeches."

In 2006, Patrick said:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal' — just words. Just words. 'We have nothing to fear but fear itself' — just words. 'Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country' — just words. 'I have a dream' — just words."

Sen. John McCain (2008)

In 2008, McCain was accused of lifting whole parts of a Wikipedia article on Georgia for one of his remarks.

Per Politico's reporting at the time, the Arizona senator said:

"After a brief period of independence following the Russian revolution, the Red Army forced Georgia to join the Soviet Union in 1922. As the Soviet Union crumbled at the end of the Cold War, Georgia regained its independence in 1991, but its early years were marked by instability, corruption, and economic crises."

Wikipedia had:

"After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Georgia had a brief period of independence as a Democratic Republic (1918-1921), which was terminated by the Red Army invasion of Georgia. Georgia became part of the Soviet Union in 1922 and regained its independence in 1991. Early post-Soviet years was marked by a civil unrest and economic crisis."

McCain dismissed the accusation, saying there are only so many ways to write basic historical facts.

Ben Carson (2012)

In January 2015, former Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson apologized for not attributing various sources in his 2012 book America the Beautiful. BuzzFeed reported that Carson lifted "nearly verbatim" from other books "a CBS News article, a Liberty Institute press release, a local newspaper article, and various internet sites."

Sen. Rand Paul (2013)

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paulwas first accused of lifting passages from Wikipedia for a speech he gave at Liberty University in Virginia. Following those accusations, Paul was then accused of taking from a Heritage Foundation case study for his book Government Bullies.

As NPR reported at the time, Paul reacted by challenging the "hacks and haters" to a duel.

Sen. John Walsh (2014)

The Army War College rescinded the Montana Democrat's degree after The New York Times reported that he had plagiarized a large portion of his final paper in 2007.

Walsh, who had been appointed to the Senate to fill a vacancy and was seeking election in his own right, dropped his bid for the Senate not long after the story broke.

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.