Abe Lincoln, Ronald Reagan and Melania Trump Walk into a Bar…

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…the bar of high standards. What do these three have in common? Together, I believe they illustrate the difference between plagiarism and allusion. With Melania, the Jayson Blair of presidential candidate’s wives, it was clearly plagiarism. Not that it was that big of a deal. No one expected the equivalent of the Gettysburg Address from her. Many people think the unforced error of the kerfluffle which came when the plagiarism came out, with the initial denials from the Trump camp, were largely due to Trump being too cheap to hire a decent speechwriter for her, and the attempt at cover up was just pure Trump.

But I read something by Mike Rowe, of “Dirty Jobs” fame, and former opera singer:
I remember, in the wake of the Challenger disaster, Ronald Reagan gave a truly extraordinary speech. Every sentence was brilliant, but this part was unforgettable.

“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning, as they prepared for their journey, waved goodbye, and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

I was 22 at the time, and I literally cried when I heard those words. I was truly touched. Later, I learned those words had been written for Reagan by Peggy Noonan. After that, I learned Peggy Noonan had lifted those words from a poem called “High Flight,” written by an airman who died in WWII named John McGee.

Did Ronald Reagan plagiarize Peggy Noonan? Did Peggy Noonan plagiarize John McGee?

Now I’m a little bit older than Mr. Rowe, I predate the 24 hour news cycle. In fact, I not only predate 24 hour news, but I predate 24 hour TV!

Back in the olden days, when there were only three networks, and cable was what you used to suspend bridges, TV stations didn’t broadcast 24/7. Typically they ended their “broadcast day” around one or two in the morning. And typically, the station just before signing off the air, would play the National Anthem and a short video of a jet fighter flying, while a narrator recited the poem “High Flight”. Having on more than one occasion stayed up past the end of the broadcast day, and because there was literally “nothing else on”, people would watch and listen to the stirring words of Airman John McGee. For those of Ronald Reagan, Peggy Noonan and my generation (heady company!), the words of High Flight were totally familiar and totally appropriate for Reagan to allude to. Whippersnappers like Mike Rowe may not have known where the words came from, but there was no attempt at plagiarism there, or anything like it.

But people often attribute a quote to the person they heard it from first. Many people attribute the line to Robert Kennedy that he quoted from George Bernard Shaw:
You see things; and you say “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say “Why not?”

A more famous attribution of a literary allusion to the wrong source comes from the aforementioned Gettysburg Address. It concludes:

…that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln was alluding to John Wycliffe‘s prologue to his Bible translation of 1384:
This Bible is for the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People.

Lincoln knew the source of the quote, as, no doubt, did the majority of those who heard it. No one rose up to yell that Lincoln had cribbed part of his speech. But his allusion to it immortalized those words, and today, people who never heard of Wycliffe (that’s okay. Today’s government schools the kids don’t hear about anybody!), have heard his words echo through the years.

So we have one plagiarist, small potatoes in comparison to the plagiarisms of Teddy Kennedy, Joe Biden and even President Obama, and two well read presidents, able to make allusions to words well said by others. If we were to stack every literary or cultural allusion in the same boat as plagiarism, we need to get a bigger boat!*

You may quote me.

Jaws (1975)

Art by John Cox. More at John Cox Art

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