‘Joe Biden,” wrote the editorialists of the Salt Lake Tribune four years ago, “is smart, articulate, and blunt.” Well, grant our Utah colleagues this much: One out of three is better than nothing. Joe Biden is blunt as a night stick, as he proved once more last week with his instantly infamous declaration that Mitt Romney hoped to enchain his fellow citizens (whom Biden articulately referred to as y’all). As for “smart” and “articulate,” the Trib’s editorialists were writing at a time, August 2008, when we were all required to marvel at what a formidable personage old Joe was. At least they didn’t use the word “gravitas”—an omission that could have gotten them run right out of the International Guild of Opinionmakers and Gasbags.
Remember? There was a period there, in the early days of the Obama Delusion, where Biden and gravitas were nearly synonymous. Why, if you looked up “gravitas” in the dictionary you’d see those pearly Biden choppers gleaming right back at you. The New York Daily News praised his “experience and gravitas.” The Washington Post said he “immediately added gravitas” to the Obama ticket. John Harwood on MSNBC said Biden’s “gravitas would enable him to take the fight to John McCain.” A Philadelphia Inquirer columnist went further: Biden was capable of “trumping the presumptive Republican nominee with gravitas.” Trumping John McCain with gravitas? Didn’t the North Vietnamese try that too?
And now the cliché makers say Biden has gone from gravitas to gaffe-prone.
But the reversal ignores the fact that the imputation of gravitas should have struck anyone familiar with Biden’s career as ludicrous. His gravitas, said 2008’s cliché makers, applied especially to his experience in foreign policy. Having first come to the Senate in 1973, Biden did indeed face all the great issues of the second half of the Cold War—and came down on the wrong side on every one of them, from the abandonment of South Vietnam to the deployment of Pershing missiles to the arming of the Nicaraguan contras. His record was pristine—completely untouched by good judgment.
The same limitations could be seen in domestic matters, often to painful effect. Two decades before Obama picked him as a running mate, Biden presided over the confirmation hearings of the Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Biden made the cringe-making mistake of assuming he understood such issues as substantive due process and the role of natural law in judging. He was just smart enough not to know what he didn’t know—half-fluent with the words but utterly confused about their meaning. The televised hours in which Bork tried patiently to explain the law to him seemed to last for days.
Biden’s confusion and lack of knowledge might be traced back to his law school career, when he imported several paragraphs from a law review article into a paper of his own. Accusations of plagiarism have dogged him ever since. Among other things, plagiarism is a crime of the intellectually insecure, and that same insecurity may account for his emphatic, and implausible, insistence on his own prodigious IQ.
In his revealing autobiography, published in 2007 to coincide with his second failed presidential campaign, he instructed his ghostwriter to include extended quotes from letters of recommendation he long ago received from various teachers, praising his “sharp and incisive intellect.” Indeed, one of the themes of Biden’s book is that with all that intellectual horsepower humming just beneath the hair plugs, life for him has been no day at the Delaware beach.
“I’ve made life difficult for myself,” the ghostwriter wrote for Biden, “by putting intellectual consistency and personal principle above expediency.” America should have understood such sentences as a cry for help. Instead, our opinion makers saw in them gravitas.
The Obama Delusion that gripped so much of the country was built on many assumptions that the last three years have proved to be false. The president was an intellectual, his countless admirers believed; he was a uniquely persuasive speaker, he was as eloquent off the cuff as he was on the stump, his deep thinking about politics transcended ideology, he understood both history and contemporary policy with rare penetration—and when it came time to choose his vice president, he “opted for gravitas.” This last false assumption was the most amusing of them all, and may yet prove to be the most dangerous.
Fareed Blots His Copybook
Plagiarism is not a crime in any legal code, but among people who make their living with words, there is no deeper offense. The plagiarist has not just stolen the work of another writer; he has used it to disguise his own inadequacy. It is a symptom of -laziness, to be sure; but above all, it’s a crime of arrogance.
Here at The Scrapbook, we tend to think of plagiarism in biblical terms: a sin that must be punished. Famous plagiarists—Molly Ivins, Stephen Ambrose, Arianna Huffington, Doris Kearns Goodwin, among others—have claimed, as an excuse, that their plagiarism was inadvertent: So busy and absorbed were they in their important work that they forgot whether the words in question were their own, or something they had read or copied. Well, we’re not buying it, and no one who has ever written an original sentence would believe it. Plagiarism is not just the theft of others’ work, but the brazen, intentional, and premeditated theft of others’ work.
Which brings us to Fareed -Zakaria. The Scrapbook confesses to a certain fascination with Zakaria: A thoroughly predictable mind with an exotic background and gift for self-promotion, he has parlayed his act into a nifty little career. In the course of a decade or two he has jumped from Foreign Affairs to Newsweek to Time to ABC to CNN and the Washington Post on the strength of a confident demeanor and a near-magical instinct for the conventional wisdom: Thomas L. Friedman with an Indian accent.
Part of The Scrapbook’s fascination lies in the obvious tension within the Zakaria format: He is just smug enough and sufficiently self-satisfied to repeat what he believes his audience wants to hear; and yet he remains afflicted with a cultural tin ear. No one at Newsweek or CNN or the Post seems to have informed him that assuring audiences that he is very smart is not in itself very smart, or that arguments aren’t necessarily clinched by mentioning one’s Harvard doctorate.
So it was with a certain interest that The Scrapbook learned of -Fareed Zakaria’s plagiarism last week. As such cases go, it was a standard transgression: To produce a column about gun control he lifted several passages from an essay by Jill Lepore which had appeared in a recent issue of the New Yorker. And as such cases go, this revelation was swiftly followed by others. Author Jeffrey Goldberg came forward to complain that quotations from an interview he conducted with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been lifted by -Zakaria without credit. And others have pointed out that Zakaria’s Harvard commencement address, delivered in May, was largely indistinguishable from his Duke commencement address, delivered two weeks earlier. Self-plagiarism, if you will.
Once it was discovered that -Zakaria had passed Lepore’s work off as his own, he admitted to a “horrible mistake,” and Time, CNN, and the Washington Post announced that he was being suspended for an indefinite period. Which, in the cases of CNN and Time, turned out to be not especially indefinite. Less than a week after Zakaria’s suspension for his “journalistic lapse” (Time’s term), he was reinstated—and will no doubt proceed from strength to strength, a sadder but wiser pundit.
Well, The Scrapbook has three observations to offer about this sorry episode. First, if we had any authority in the matter, Zakaria’s suspensions would not have been indefinite but conclusive. If there is any firing offense in the practice of journalism, surely it is plagiarism. Second, we have a suspicion—based on a lifetime’s experience of the way things work—that it may not have been Fareed Zakaria who plagiarized Jill Lepore, but some poor 23-year-old assistant who probably drafts the columns that “Fareed Zakaria” churns out. It would have been convenient, of course, to throw the intern under the bus, but if such was the explanation, Zakaria chose to keep this embarrassing secret to himself.
As for The Scrapbook’s third observation, it takes the form of a question: What were Harvard—and Oberlin and Bates and Brown and Johns Hopkins and the University of Miami—thinking when they conferred honorary degrees on Fareed Zakaria?
Profiles in Ducking and Covering
Last December, Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, coauthored a Medicare reform plan with none other than Paul Ryan. (Yes, the one you saw on TV throwing Grandma off a cliff.) Entitled “Guaranteed Choices to Strengthen Medicare and Health Security for All,” the proposal called for Medicare to transition to a premium-support system, whereby seniors would receive a government subsidy with which they would purchase private health insurance. Enrolling in traditional Medicare would also remain an option. In other words, Wyden basically signed on to what is known as the Ryan plan.
When Wyden and Ryan released their proposal, the left was enraged. Democratic representative Pete Stark of California warned that the plan “ends Medicare as know it, plain and simple.” Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio said that the plan amounted to putting “lipstick on a pig.” The New York Times’s Paul Krugman, channeling Lenin as usual, labeled Wyden a “useful idiot.”
But Wyden, to his credit, was undeterred. “This doesn’t end Medicare as we know it,” he averred in a joint interview with Ryan. In fact, he went on to say, premium support offers a way for “progressives and conservatives to come together.” The plan, he said, is “a model driven by choices and competition. . . . We believe it’s going to work.” In a later Huffington Post op-ed, Wyden further defended what he then called “Wyden-Ryan,” saying that it was the best way to “preserve the Medicare guarantee.”
So last weekend, when Mitt Romney selected Paul Ryan as his running mate (and even name-checked Wyden in his speech introducing Ryan), Ron Wyden was confronted with a choice. Would he stand steady, a veritable Stonewall Wyden, admirably defending premium support in the face of partisan scare-mongering? Or would he reduce himself to being just another partisan, standing by as his party trashes a policy that he knows is meritorious? The choice was made even starker when it became clear that the Democrats would put the Ryan Plan at the center of their campaign against Romney.
So what did Wyden do? Cue the tape: “Governor Romney needs to learn you don’t protect seniors by making things up, and his comments sure won’t help promote real bipartisanship,” Wyden said in a statement full of similarly meaningless bromides.
It seems that Romney slipped up and referred to Wyden-Ryan as a piece of “legislation,” and not as a “proposal,” or “plan,” which are Wyden’s preferred terms. And, yes, it was hemming and hawing about this minimal semantic distinction that made up essentially the entirety of Wyden’s response. As for the benefits of premium support—and the false attacks on the the model coming from the Democrats—it’s been radio silence from Oregon’s senior senator.