Paul Greenberg

Barack Obama's beautifully choreographed campaign, from the stunning debut in Iowa to the cheering masses in Berlin, may have just made its fatal error, and its name is Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., a U.S. senator from Delaware. Even though he once confused himself with The Hon. Neil Kinnock, MP.

It seems Lord Kinnock's rags-to-power story so entranced a younger Sen. Biden that he, uh, borrowed the Welshman's words (and whole speaking style) during his first bust of a presidential campaign in 1988.

That outing fizzled, like Sen. Biden's presidential campaign this year, but this time he's won one heck of a consolation prize: Barack Obama's nod for second place on the Democratic ticket. Congratulations, Sen. Biden. God help you, Sen. Obama. For there's nothing like a presidential - and vice presidential - campaign to expose every embarrassing detail of a candidate's life. Including any alter egos he's developed along the way.

Have we ever had an admitted plagiarist as a vice president? Well, it could be argued, though not very convincingly, that every politician prominent enough to have a speechwriter, or even a whole stable of them, is taking credit for somebody else's words. But that's no longer scandalous; it's common practice, and the speechwriters - far from considering themselves victims - may be flattered that theirs are the words The Candidate chooses to use.

One president - Franklin Roosevelt - was so proud of his speechwriters' words that he went to great lengths to leave the impression for future historians that he himself had written them, laboriously copying his First Inaugural over in his own hand. The only thing he had to fear was Š that his speechwriters would get credit for their own words.

Every writer, even a writer manque like a journalist, can well understand the temptations of plagiarism, as in the phrase that occurs to some of us almost automatically when we read some rare piece of well-turned commentary: "Gosh, I wish I'd written that!" What disturbed about Joe Biden in 1988 was that he didn't just steal Lord Kinnock's words but the Briton's whole life story.

There's a point at which plagiarism stops being scandalous and becomes just pitiable, and Joe Biden passed it 20 years ago. How sad. The self has become an equivocal commodity in the modern age, but can you think of another politician who's appropriated not just another's words but his life?


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.