SOTU plagiarism?

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Dylan Byers, "Bush speechwriter: Obama plagiarized Bush", Politico 1/29/2014:

President George W. Bush's former speech writer said that President Barack Obama plagiarized his former boss in Tuesday's State of the Union address.

Speaking to Fox News's Megyn Kelly, Marc Thiessen, the lead writer on Bush's 2007 State of the Union address, said he found Obama's speech Tuesday night "eerily familiar."

"Barack Obama has gone from blaming George W. Bush to plagiarizing George W. Bush," Thiessen said. 

Thiessen then read phrases from the 2007 speech which focused on the theme "hope and opportunity."

"It was eerily familiar. There were lines like 'Our job is to help Americans build a future of hope and opportunity, a future of hope and opportunity begins with a growing economy, a future of hope and opportunity requires that all citizens have affordable and available healthcare, extending opportunity and hope depends on a stable supply of energy,' all of that came from the 2007 State of the Union from George W. Bush," Thiessen said.

Perhaps "eerily careless with the facts" would be an appropriate description of Thiessen's claim. Byers somewhat debunks the plagiarism idea:

A quick text compare shows that no lines were directly lifted from Bush's 2007 speech in the one Obama gave on Tuesday. There are some minor similarities between the two: Obama use a version of the word "opportunity" more than ten times in his speech, Bush used the word at least eight times. Both speeches also ended with a moving story about a wounded veteran. 

And he quotes Thiessen as ambigously backpedaling on the whole thing:

Asked if he was actually accusing the president of plagiarism, Thiessen replied, "Seriously? Get some sleep".

Which I guess might be translated as "Give me a break, dude, it was Fox."

But having had an adequate amount of sleep, I'll invest the two minutes required to show how bad a job Thiessen did of concocting his attack.

One way to look for "plagiarism" of "eerily familar" phrases would be to look for overlap in three-word-sequences ("trigrams"). So I calculated that overlap between Obama's 2014 SOTU speech and all the SOTU speeches from 1950 to 2013, counted as the number of distinct trigram types that each pair has in common, and also as the total number of repetitions of those shared trigrams. Here's the graph, with a vertical dotted line to show the 2007 speech that is supposed to be so "eerily familar":

 

Ignoring Obama's own previous SOTU speeches, the greatest amount of  trigram overlap is with Ronald Reagan's 1981 speech – and there are 15 other post-1981 SOTU speeches that have more trigram overlap with SOTU 2014 than SOTU 2007 does, including George W. Bush's 2008 speech. (The whole table of trigram overlaps is here.)

What about the count of "opportunity" that Byers grants to Thiessen ("Obama use a version of the word 'opportunity' more than ten times in his speech, Bush used the word at least eight times")?  There have been 12 SOTU messages with 8 or more uses of the word "opportunity". In chronological order:

1907 8 (Theodore Roosevelt)
1908 8 (Theodore Roosevelt)
1909 16 (Woodrow Wilson)
1946 12 (Harry Truman)
1950 8 (Harry Truman)
1956 8 (Dwight Eisenhower)
1995 9 (William Clinton)
1998 10 (William Clinton)
1999 9 (William Clinton)
2000 13 (William Clinton)
2007 8 (George W.  Bush)
2014 12 (Barack Obama)

Maybe we should look into whether in 2007, Mr. Thiessen was actually plagiarizing Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Bill Clinton. Or we could just go back to sleep.

But really, Fox News needs a better quality of confabulation. This is pitiful.

 

 

 

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10 Comments »

  1. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 30, 2014 @ 1:45 pm

    "Opportunity" in certain contexts is actually a bit of a right-wing dog-whistle word, which I associate with the Jack Kemp / Newt Gingrich / Steve Forbes side of things. ("Instead of giving the poor welfare checks, these innovative policies I'm proposing will enable all of them to become successful entrepeneurs via the magic of the market" – that sort of line.) Some quick googling reveals a lot of left-of-center sources circa the 2010 campaign being very unhappy with a 501c4 called the "Commission on Hope, Growth, and Opportunity," which was supposedly funneling oodles of money of unknown ultimate origin to various GOP candidates.

  2. Jer said,

    January 30, 2014 @ 1:48 pm

    I think the lesson we can take away from this is that in 2007 George W Bush's speechwriters were plagiarizing old speeches from Bill Clinton. I mean look at how many times Clinton used the word "opportunity" in there – they must have been stealing!

  3. Lane said,

    January 30, 2014 @ 2:22 pm

    I do believe this falls under the category of technical Frankfurtian "bullshit": Thiessen didn't mean it, he doesn't know, and he doesn't care, and he doesn't really care whether you know or you care yourself.

  4. Brett said,

    January 30, 2014 @ 3:49 pm

    I would just like to interject a note of thanks to Language Log for having made "technical bullshit" a permanent part of my vocabulary. It has turned out to be an extremely useful category to have available, especially in discussions of politics. (I have also picked up "technical trainwreck" from my brother in the film industry.)

  5. Chris C. said,

    January 30, 2014 @ 5:22 pm

    Somehow, "State of the Union Address" and "startlingly original oratory" are two phrases I would never dream of associating with each other.

    [(myl) Four words: "virgin and exuberant soil".]

  6. Chris C. said,

    January 30, 2014 @ 8:12 pm

    "Influx of laboring masses" is a gem too. But, alas for what has become of our soil!

  7. Ted said,

    January 31, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

    What I think happened here is that Thiessen used "plagiarism" in a colloquial, figurative sense. If I'm right, what he was trying to say was a much less inflammatory criticism: "In 2007, Obama ran a campaign based in substantial part on criticizing Bush, and now the policies he's advocating in his 2014 SOTU are pretty much identical to the ones Bush advocated in his 2007 SOTU." In essence, he's saying Obama lifted ("plagiarized") Bush's ideas, not Bush's words.

    Of course, that's not plagiarism. But he's really accusing Obama of hypocrisy, not plagiarism. In context, the word was used to suggest a sort of dishonest lack of originality — but a different sort than actual plagiarism. Hence Thiessen's response when asked if he was really calling Obama a plagiarist, which I translate as basically, "Are you serious? Get real, man."

    So I don't disagree with myl's analysis, but I don't think there was ever any genuine dispute that needed to be debunked via such an analysis. (Although I understand why, seeing it on Fox, one might have assumed otherwise.)

  8. Ted said,

    January 31, 2014 @ 12:41 pm

    In last paragraph, should have said either claim that needed to be debunked or dispute that needed to be resolved. Sorry for mixing.

  9. fev said,

    February 2, 2014 @ 11:02 am

    The target audience — at least, the minor-league commentariat — seems to have gotten the intended message: "he even plagiarized lines from Mr. Bush’s 2007 SOTU, according to former Bush speechwriter Mark Thiessen" (http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2014/02/02/the_state_of_obama_is_not_good_121436.html)

    [(myl) Some others:

    (here) My how the mighty have fallen. I was going to report on all the lies in Obama’s State of the Union last night. But it appears he’s more than a pathetic liar, he’s actually a thief too. Obama started out his career at the Brandenburg Gate in Germany with thousands watching. Now he plagiarizes George W. Bush’s speeches? That’s a pretty long fall. Large swaths of this speech appear to have been lifted directly from Bush’s 2007 State of the Union. So say Bush’s speechwriter- and he should know his own words. 

    (here) Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, has accused President Barack Obama of plagiarizing one of his former boss's speeches in the State of the Union address Tuesday night. "It was eerily familiar," Thiessen told Fox News's Megyn Kelly following the president speech. "There were lines like 'Our job is to help Americans build a future of hope and opportunity, a future of hope and opportunity begins with a growing economy, a future of hope and opportunity requires that all citizens have affordable and available healthcare, extending opportunity and hope depends on a stable supply of energy.' All of that came from the 2007 State of the Union from George W. Bush."

    (here) Former Bush Speechwriter Mark Theissen was watching President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address last night, and he suddenly had an eerie sense of déjà vu. If you were one of the many Americans watching or listening to President Obama’s State of the Union address, you can be forgiven for experiencing a bit of déjà vu yourself. According to Mark Theissen, lead speech writer for President George W. Bush, there is a very good reason parts of President Obama’s speech may have sounded familiar. The reason is because Mr. Theissen claims he wrote them in 2007.

    And so on...]

  10. Ted said,

    February 3, 2014 @ 12:03 am

    They're reading "all of that" in "All of that came from . . ." to refer to the words in the lines Theissen was pointing to. I think he was actually referring to the proposals in those lines. But I can see where the confusion is coming from. (And when you already believe Obama is the Antichrist, you probably don't have much trouble imagining that he's also a plagiarist.)

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