It’s something that’d likely get you expelled from most major colleges and universities in America, few if any questions asked. It’s something that scuttled our current VEEP from running for President back in the 80s. Suffice to say, plagiarism is a serious offense.
Plagiarism is regarded in our culture as worse than a trivial breach of academic norms, and isn’t even legal in nature (although copyright infringement and intellectual property law can be thought of as, I guess, legal cousins). Plagiarism as an action is a moral wrong, an ethical mis-step; something that cuts more deep to the core of who someone is as a person. And it is exactly that “crime” that has Kentucky Tea-Party/Libertarian/Republican Senator and would-be Presidential candidate so flummoxed and defensive this past week.
But more than the now completely documented acts of plagiarism by Paul and/or his staff, what has been more illustrative to outside observers has been how he has chosen to react to the controversy itself. Nixon’s Watergate scandal popularized the phrase “It’s not the crime but the cover-up;” but this example demonstrates, perhaps, that the cover-up simply compounds the crime.
I was skeptical this story had longs for the first day or two. A sad truth in today’s political discourse is that the messenger matters almost as much as the message itself. When the story broke on The Rachel Maddow Show, I instantly knew how folks in conservative, pro-Paul circles would react. Even with damning reporting, and incontrovertible facts, many (if not most) on the right immediately discounted the facts, with Maddow’s political leanings coloring the story (and Paul’s response).
But what gave this story legs includes two separate yet uniquely important elements that, taken together, explain why and how this problem exploded for Paul. What happened first included follow-up by other national (and less left-leaning) outfits and reporters, including Paul’s hometown newspapers, corroborating Maddow’s original reporting and giving it the all-important “partisan” seal of approval.
But how decided to approach the issue, and his continued response to the controversy, is the second important element that gave space for this current controversy to grow. Known for plagiarizing can (and has) ended careers both in and outside the political realm, so one might be able to envision some fantasy world in which Paul:
- shows authentic remorse for the errs of either himself or his staff;
- identifies previous transgressions while taming ego-centric inclinations to hide the full and absolute truth; and
- maps out proactive steps that discourage this now-identified problem to ever happen again.
This is the path popularized by early-twentieth century lawyer Andrew Brandeis with his seminal and oft-repeated observation that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” In this world Paul simply mans up, admits fault, and makes substantive changes so this kind of shit doesn’t happen again. Easy to understand, right?
He didn’t go that route. Instead, Paul lashes out at the media, claiming he’s the target of unfair attacks. He accuses Rachel Maddow of being the REAL plagiarist (deflection maybe?) before challenging her to a duel (really now?). He doubles down that he never lifted text in his speeches. He gets extremely defensive with the New York Times. And, my favorite, calls bullshit on the entire controversy, blaming the work of “hacks and haters.”
Maybe Paul will recover and maybe he won’t. Will this end his career in the Senate? Probably not, though it certainly is sucking the wind out of his presidential sails. Sometimes you just need to come clean- spilling the whole, disgusting, unflattering, sad truth- and move on. Because if you don’t the problems aren’t the “hacks and the haters,” Senator Paul; it’s you!