Cautionary Tale: a Plagiarist's Comeuppance


February 05, 1992|By CHRISTOPHER FOREMAN

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Even now, more than 25 years after the fact, I feel the sting of being unmasked on television as a plagiarist. It happened in Baltimore about 1964, when I was about 12. I wanted to write. But even more -- perhaps I was already a budding academic -- I yearned to ''publish.''

I found my vehicle in a man named John Bartholomew Tucker. Young and personable -- I believe he was a former English teacher -- with a voice that dripped neighborliness, Tucker hosted a local late-afternoon television program called ''People Are Talking.'' His program was an engagingly simple confection, this being well before the advent of computer-generated graphics and Oprah-style confession- mongering. Tucker's show consisted of taped ''man-in-the-street'' interviews interspersed with a little light studio banter by Tucker.

As one would expect, Tucker got mail, and sometimes read some of it on the air. I spied my chance for fame and fun.

Being a normal 12-year-old male, I was well acquainted with MAD magazine, that magnificent compendium of the puerile and the outright inane. From that source I ''borrowed'' unaltered a clever parody of the poem ''The Tiger'' (''Tiger, Tiger, burning bright''). I recopied this bit of silliness by hand onto a sheet of loose-leaf note paper. As an added touch, I gave myself a nom de plume, signing my first initial and middle name: C. Henry Foreman.

A few days later, Tucker broadcast this little gem over the air, much to my (and Tucker's) amusement. So I did what seemed the obvious thing, promptly copying down another bit of doggerel from the same source and mailing it in. Tucker obliged me a second time. By now I was beside myself with my cleverness.

Retribution was both inevitable and merciless. I tuned in one day to hear Tucker read my third submission. Instead, he read something quite different, an outraged letter from ''Three Disturbed Readers'' who, like me, also watched Tucker's program and fancied MAD. They had instantly recognized my plagiarism for what it was and were having none of it. Nor was Tucker, who then proceeded to lecture at me sternly over the air in fine outraged English-teacher styles.

I had, he made clear, done something quite dishonorable. The whole tirade lasted perhaps 30 seconds, though it seemed much longer. At its conclusion Tucker, who had all along been been holding my latest fraud in his hands, imperiously tore it up and scattered the pieces into the air around him.

I watched this whole explosion alone, in the dimly lighted basement of a family friend. I quickly turned off the television and stood there, trembling in the dark, imagining that some vicious kind of fraud police had been dispatched from WJZ-TV to bring me in. Had any of my teachers or friends been watching? (Apparently no, thank God.)

Days later, the fear was gone, replaced by the sad realization that I had angered and disappointed someone I'd meant to impress. And, as my mother helpfully pointed out, the plagiarism was doubly stupid, since I actually had authored humorous poetry of my own, easily good enough to have offered for Tucker's consideration.

To this day I've never met John Bartholomew Tucker. He want on to bigger things, and is perhaps best known as a voice-over artist in television commercials, pitching Life Savers, Photomat stores, you name it. And to this day, every time I hear that distinctive, good-natured, neighborly voice emanating from a television, I think back to my brief lamentable career as the poet-plagiarist of Baltimore.

Christopher J. Foreman Jr. is a research associate at the Brookings Institution and teaches at the American University. He really wrote this essay.

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