"Plagiarism"? Clinton Borrowed Her Husband's "Invisible" Theme

As she rolled out her White House effort in early 2007, Sen. Hillary Clinton embraced a campaign theme that accused the Bush administration of turning working class families into "invisible Americans."

"For six long years, they have all been invisible," she told a crowd in Manchester. "Well, they're not invisible to us. And they're certainly not invisible to me. And when we retake the White House, they will no longer be invisible to the president of the United States. And we will begin to make progress together again."

Clinton's first television advertisement of the race -- titled "Invisible" -- took up the same theme. The line had a provocative and emotional touch and helped the New York Senator find her political legs on the campaign trail.

But was it original? Not entirely.

Clinton's "Invisible Americans" line echoes an anecdote that her husband, Bill Clinton, has included in speeches of his own for years. As far back as October 2002, the former president has repeatedly closed his talks around the world with an anecdote that pivots off his experiences in Africa to highlight the swaths of population that are "invisible" or have gone "ignored" by the governments of the world.

"When people meet each other on trails, one will say 'hello' or 'good morning' or 'how are you?' Bill Clinton said, describing the greeting of a Central African tribe a few months after his wife's Manchester address. "And the answer is not 'hello' or 'I'm fine' or 'how are you?' The answer, translated into English, is simple: 'I see you.' Think of how many people we never see, or we never see fully, because they're part of the Other or they're just invisible. Somebody's going to have to come in here and clean up after us today. Will they be seen? What about the people who are of different faiths and different politics and live in different places? Do we ever really see them?"

In March 2006, Bill Clinton told an audience, "it's obvious that all of us, as we become more diverse, these societies, we have people among us who are invisible to us, we don't have a clue what's in their real heads, what's in their real hearts and whether they feel like they're part of our communities."

The practice of sharing words and ideas is fairly customary among political candidates. And the fact that Hillary Clinton pivoted off of a popular theme from her husband's address hardly comes as a great surprise. Take, for instance, these two lines highlighted by MSNBC.

Sen. Clinton: "We ask ourselves, will we say when the fall comes: send me."
President Clinton: "Say to him what he has always said to America: send me"

In the last few days, however, the issue of political plagiarism has been thrust into the campaign spotlight after it was revealed that Sen. Barack Obama had generously lifted a segment from a speech of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a co-chair of Obama's campaign. The two speeches were posted back to back on YouTube by a "rival campaign." And in both videos, the two men tout the power of "words," with each citing speeches by John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Thomas Jefferson.

In an interview with Politico on Monday, an official with the Clinton campaign accused Obama of downright "plagiarism." And on a conference call with reporters, Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern - a Clinton supporter - declared that the country needed a president who is "not just someone who can copy someone's homework."

Later in the day, officials with Clinton's camp stressed that, because Obama is a candidate who relies so heavily on his oratory it is important to note that his language isn't always his own. Especially if it comes in the defense of words.

Tellingly, however, neither McGovern nor Howard Wolfson, spokesperson for the Clinton campaign, would state that they or their candidate had never borrowed speech lines themselves.

And in a blog post on The New Republic, former Bill Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet scoffed at the idea that the Obama-Patrick similarities constituted a modicum of political scandal. Politicians, he noted, borrow from each other all the time. Even Sen. Clinton.

"If plagiarism is borrowing rhetoric without permission," Kusnet wrote. "Patrick most likely is happy to have Obama sound similar notes, such as hope and inspiration being more than 'just words.'" Even if Obama and Patrick didn't know each other, they might use some of the same phrases because similar public figures frequently draw on common streams of public rhetoric... Does what Obama did come close to what [Sen. Joseph] Biden did [in 1988]? Absolutely not. Next scandal, please."