As George Bernard Shaw Once Said . . .

ERNEST B. FURGURSON

October 25, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

WASHINGTON. — Washington--The first great scandal of the new political season is upon us, and the guilty candidate may never recover.

I refer not to a congressional investigator's report that Republican Dick Thornburgh, now running for the Senate in Pennsylvania, refused for years as attorney general to follow up leads about the BCCI mess.

That multinational banking outrage is trivial beside what Democrat Jerry Brown did within minutes of starting his third try for president. He has committed the sin that drove another Democrat out of contention in 1988 -- a sin so dreadful it is denounced from the pulpits of the land: plagiarism.

A hot flash from Chicago informs that former Governor Brown, in his announcement speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, used two lines from someone else's literary work, almost verbatim and without attribution.

What he said was, ''We carry in our hearts the true country, and that can't be stolen. We follow in the spirit of our ancestors, and that cannot be broken.''

The plagiarism police, with Bartlett's ''Familiar Quotations'' open and ready, did not respond at first. It was an alert Chicago radio reporter who recognized that the ex-governor had used someone else's words.

That someone else was none other than -- Midnight Oil!

Midnight Oil is, as you surely know, an Australian rock group. The words in question closely resemble those in the group's 1988 masterpiece, ''The Dead Heart.'' Mr. Brown's spokesman said that though the candidate did not acknowledge his source in person, an information sheet handed to reporters did indeed credit Midnight Oil.

Whether the California politician's campaign will survive this gaffe was uncertain at press time. (It was uncertain before he announced, as well.) To his credit, he quoted and credited both Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln in the same speech. If Mr. Brown is lucky, only Australian rock fans will be offended by his lapse.

In politics and press, vigilance against plagiarism today may be at an all-time high. In over-reaction to some flagrant excesses, the plagiarism police are citing sub-trivial offenses, even common practices that are no offense at all.

The case that scares politicians most is that of Senator Joe Biden.

During the 1988 preliminaries, he stole not a couple of lines but a life story from the British Labor Party leader, Neal Kinnock. Mr. Kinnock had spoken dramatically of how his father worked in Welsh coal mines; Mr. Biden told how his ancestors worked in Pennsylvania coal mines -- though in real life, his father was a Wilmington auto dealer. Occasionally he had credited Mr. Kinnock, but at other times he presented the autobiography and rhetoric as his own.

Mr. Biden tried to brush it off as accidental when reporters spotted it, and was surprised when it became part of the ''character issue'' so dominant in current campaigns. Soon afterward, he quit the race.

In simple fact, all political rhetoric is a hash of other people's ideas. When a candidate uses the words of someone like Jefferson, Lincoln or Oliver Wendell Holmes, he usually credits the source not because of copyright law, but because he wants his audience to think he sits up nights studying the lives of great men. Jack and Bobby Kennedy, or rather their speech writers, were especially good at this.

Other people's ideas make the world go round. Most columnists, including this one, write thousands of words each week, commenting on news reported by others. It is safe to assume that most of the basic facts in any opinion column, except those offered by practitioners of gotcha journalism, originated somewhere else. Few pretend otherwise.

The occasional journalistic and scholastic felony is committed by people who do pretend otherwise, who lift others' words or work and present them as their own. Martin Luther King Jr. did just that in his doctoral dissertation, a discrepancy that if discovered soon enough would have prevented his being called Dr. King. Once in a while a reporter gets fired for the same kind of thing.

Those are true offenses. To them, drastic response is a must. But trying to police the traffic in other people's ideas, giving Jerry Brown a ticket for appropriating the immortal lines of Midnight Oil, is like trying to keep thistledown from blowing to another man's pasture.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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