Skip to main Content
Nation/World

Echoes of Biden’s 1987 plagiarism scandal continue to reverberate

  • Author: Neena Satija, The Washington Post
  • Updated: June 5
  • Published June 5

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden talks at The Community Oven in Hampton, N.H., on May 13. (Washington Post photo by Melina Mara)

On Sept. 23, 1987, Joe Biden stood before a crowd of reporters and ended his first presidential campaign amid questions about a value he’d worked hard to convince voters he had: authenticity.

The collapse had begun 11 days earlier, with news that Biden had lifted phrases and mannerisms from a British Labour Party politician while making closing remarks at a debate. Examples soon surfaced of Biden using material from other politicians without attribution, and he acknowledged he had been accused of plagiarism in law school. To make matters worse, a video emerged of Biden exaggerating his academic record while speaking angrily to a voter in New Hampshire.

"I made some mistakes," Biden, then a U.S. senator, told the press as he announced the end of his candidacy, in a speech that was by turns regretful and defiant. "But now, the exaggerated shadow of those mistakes has begun to obscure the essence of my candidacy and the essence of Joe Biden."

More than three decades later, those events are back in the spotlight for the former vice president, who is one of the most visible Democrats in a crowded field vying to run against President Donald Trump. Biden's campaign on Tuesday acknowledged that it had lifted phrases, without attribution, from various nonprofit publications in its climate and education plans.

In one instance, a sentence on carbon capture from Biden's climate plan is nearly identical to wording used by a group called the Carbon Capture Coalition.

"Staff working on drafts of the policy paper inadvertently left some citations out of the final document, and Vice President Biden was unaware of it," Biden campaign spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield said in a statement. "As soon as staff were made aware of the error, they fixed it."

In 1987, along with the plagiarism controversy, Biden's campaign was buffeted by accusations of hyperbole and imprecision. The idea that Biden is sometimes careless with his words persists. This past December, he called himself a "gaffe machine."

In 2007, Biden claimed that he was "shot at" in Iraq's Green Zone; he later clarified that he was "near where a shot landed." The following year, he told the Associated Press that "literally . . . hundreds of thousands" of people attended the speech that launched his campaign for Senate in 1972.

And in April, during his first campaign rally since declaring his candidacy, Biden falsely said the benefits from the Trump tax cuts went entirely to "folks at the top and corporations." (Other Democratic candidates have also been dinged for making similar statements.)

"To be clear, a quickly fixed staff error on citations and cherry-picked, isolated examples from a 45-year career in public life are irrelevant to what kind of president Joe Biden would be," Bedingfield said. "Voters know Joe Biden. They know his values and his character are the polar opposite of Donald Trump, who lies to the American people virtually everyday and whose policies rooted in hatred and discrimination seek to divide us."

Biden's misstatements are not on the scale of Trump's - the president's false or misleading claims in office number more than 10,000 so far, according to a recent count by The Washington Post. But only Biden has had a previous presidential campaign derailed by revelations of plagiarism and false statements.

An examination of Biden's early plagiarism scandal throws into sharp relief questions about candidate authenticity and the differences between the political climate then and now. For Biden, the question is whether the Biden of 2020 can overcome past political failures and humiliations. For the country, it is whether voters are more forgiving today than they were then, or whether Trump is simply more able than his opponents to defy political gravity.

Ted Kaufman, who was Biden's chief of staff in 1987, called the events from that campaign "ancient history" and said they are irrelevant to Biden's current bid. Biden and his advisers maintain that the allegations of plagiarism and false statements were overblown - and that Biden dropped out of the race in part because he wanted to focus on other matters. As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden was in the middle of a fight over Robert Bork, a Supreme Court nominee whose controversial conservative views alarmed civil rights activists.

"Look at his incredible record of truth telling since then," said Kaufman, a longtime friend of Biden's who remains a key adviser. "We're very proud of how this campaign has been run to date. . . . Any similarity between this and 1987, I don't see it - any similarity."

---

By many accounts, the 1987 campaign's free fall began on Friday, Sept. 11. Former Des Moines Register political reporter David Yepsen remembers having breakfast that morning at the Savery Hotel in downtown Des Moines with Paul Tully, a campaign staffer for Michael Dukakis. "I have something for you," Tully told him as they walked out of the hotel. He opened the trunk of his car and handing Yepsen a videotape.

When Yepsen got back to the office, he watched a side-by-side comparison of Biden's remarks at a recent debate with the statements of a fiery British politician, Neil Kinnock. Their words - including how they described themselves and their backgrounds - were remarkably similar.

In one clip, taken from a political broadcast that had compiled some of Kinnock's famous speeches in recent years, the Labour Party leader invoked his personal story to argue that government plays an important role in people's lives. "Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?" he asks in the speech. Referring to his ancestors, some of whom were coal miners, he adds: "Was it because all our predecessors were thick? . . . Those people who could sing and play and recite and write poetry? . . . Those people who could work eight hours underground and then come up and play football?"

In the other, Biden speaks at the close of a debate at the Iowa State Fair. "Why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university? . . . Is it because I'm the first Biden in a thousand generations to get a college and a graduate degree? That I was smarter than the rest? Those same people who read poetry and wrote poetry and taught me how to sing verse? Is it because they didn't work hard? My ancestors, who worked in the coal mines of northeast Pennsylvania and would come up after 12 hours and play football for four hours?"

Yepsen thought the videos were striking, but he had no idea they would turn out to be so consequential for the campaign. Biden and his staff did not think it was such a big deal, either. Biden had already been using the Kinnock material, and properly attributing it, for weeks, evidence borne out in reporters' notebooks and videos of other campaign appearances. David Wilhelm, an Iowa campaign aide at the time, had even suggested in the ride over to the Iowa debate that Biden try using the same Kinnock themes in his closing remarks.

"I had heard him quote Neil Kinnock by name, probably 20 times," Wilhelm recalled in an interview. "So I don't know if I call it plagiarism. I might call it 'he forgot.' He didn't go into that debate with some master plan of appropriating some British guy's life story. He was just using a quote that had worked to great effect during the campaign."

But on Saturday, Sept. 12, when the first news reports were published, the power of the video became clear. Watching a report on NBC News that put Biden and Kinnock together on screen "made my stomach hurt," Biden wrote in his 2007 book, "Promises to Keep." "This looked terrible - and it couldn't have come at a worse time."

The Senate hearings on Bork's confirmation were set to begin in just three days.

The campaign insisted this had been a one-time error. But it turned out that Biden had used the Kinnock material without attribution another time, and it had been videotaped by the National Education Association. Biden also acknowledged that he had inaccurately appropriated some details of Kinnock's life: While Biden was the first on his father's side of the family to go to college, he was not the first in his whole family. And his ancestors had not been coal miners; rather, some were mining engineers.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Lord, then a staffer in the Reagan White House, was watching the news unfold with frustration. Months earlier, stuck in Washington in the middle of a snowstorm, he had turned on C-SPAN to watch Biden give a speech to California Democrats. A fan of Robert Kennedy, Lord had immediately noticed that Biden was using long passages from Kennedy's speeches without giving him credit.

"So then you fast-forward to . . . the Neil Kinnock situation," Lord, who today is a pro-Trump pundit, said in an interview. "The response was: 'Oh, it was a mistake. He doesn't do this kind of thing.' I knew it wasn't true."

Lord called Maureen Dowd at the New York Times, drove to his home to dig out recordings of the Kennedy speeches and walked them over to the Times bureau in Washington. The story broke soon afterward, along with revelations that Biden had lifted sentences from Hubert Humphrey in yet another speech, without crediting him. (Biden aides said they had forgotten to write the attribution of the Kennedy lines into his speech.)

"These reporters who kept calling, none of whom had any personal experience of me, were starting to see the emergence of a pattern . . . a character flaw," Biden wrote in his book. At the same time, the Bork hearings were underway. "I found myself fighting two battles: one with the Reagan White House over Bork and the other to defend my good name."

On Wednesday, the second day of the Bork hearings, things got worse. Rumors were circulating that Biden had been accused of plagiarism while in law school. A friend and classmate flew up to Syracuse University College of Law to get Biden's law school records. The stack of documents, including notes from a faculty meeting in 1965, confirmed that Biden had used five pages of a law review article in a 15-page paper "without quotation or citation."

In a move the following morning to quell the controversy, Biden released the records to the public. Among them was a letter he had written to the dean and faculty insisting that he had not intentionally plagiarized and pleading not to be expelled.

"I am aware that, in many instances, ignorance of the law is no excuse," Biden wrote, according to news accounts. "Consequently, if you decide that this is such an instance and that I've broken the law, then any course of action on your part is justified. But please, I implore you, don't take my honor. If your decision is that I may not remain at Syracuse University College of Law, please allow me to resign, but don't label me a cheat."

At a news conference that day, Biden told reporters the episode had been a misunderstanding about footnoting. "I did something very stupid 23 years ago," he said. He pointed out that some professors vouched for his integrity, and he called the allegations of plagiarism in speeches "much ado about nothing."

As the news conference ended, Biden remained defiant. "I'm in this race to stay. I'm in this race to win. And here I come," he said.

---

But just days later, a story from Newsweek hit the wires.

Reporters had dug up a months-old video of a voter in Claremont, New Hampshire, pointedly asking Biden about his academic record.

Biden angrily responded, "I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect." He claimed he had gone to law school on a full academic scholarship and graduated in the top half of his class, adding, "I was the outstanding student in the political science department at the end of my year."

In fact, Biden would soon acknowledge that he attended law school on a partial need-based scholarship, graduated near the bottom of his class and was merely "put up for that award" by a professor.

Reflecting on the events in his book decades later, Biden wrote, "When I stopped trying to explain to everybody and thought it through, the blame fell totally on me." Still, he called them honest mistakes: "What I'd said about my academic achievements was just faulty memory or lack of knowledge. I hadn't remembered where I finished in my law school class. I hadn't cared. But to say 'Wanna compare IQs?' was so stupid."

The night of Sept. 22, Biden's family gathered in his living room to discuss the pros and cons of staying in the race. Some, including his sons Beau and Hunter, insisted that he not give in to what they called a cheap attack. Others worried that trying to salvage the campaign would distract from the effort to derail the Bork nomination.

According to the book, Biden's mom told him, "I think it's time to get out."

He made his announcement the next morning, less than four months after the campaign had officially begun.

In her new book out this week, "Where the Light Enters," Biden's wife, Jill, called the episode "not only politically damaging" but "personally devastating" for her husband. "For his entire political life," she wrote, "Joe had been known for his integrity."

Today, accounts of what happened to Biden's ill-fated campaign in the fall of 1987 focus mostly on the allegations that he plagiarized Kinnock's speech. Eric Woolson, Biden's Iowa communications director at the time, said the story was bigger than that.

"Whether we're talking about 1987 or 2019, candidates have a responsibility to adhere to the truth," said Woolson, now a Republican political consultant based in Des Moines. "The moral of the story, whether it was back then or today, is that voters deserve and expect candidates who are going to be truthful."

Whether the events should have been disqualifying, Woolson still isn't sure. One reason the Kinnock plagiarism story kept snowballing was because the idea of an "attack video" created by a rival campaign was a new concept in 1987, and it fueled widespread speculation as to the source of the video. Ultimately, Tully and another Dukakis campaign staffer resigned over their role in the incident.

"Back then, it was like a fireable offense," Woolson marveled. "These days, you'd give the guy a big bonus for that."

Kinnock recently told the Washington Examiner he supported Biden's current bid for president, calling Biden a candidate with "proven ability, experience, sense of mature judgment on the issues" and "only mundane imperfections."

Frank Fahey - the voter Biden angrily spoke to in Claremont - has said he regrets any role the conversation may have played in prompting Biden to drop out of the race. "I didn't hold that against him at all," Fahey said in an interview, adding that Biden apologized to him years later.

Fahey, a retired public schoolteacher, said he is supporting Biden above all the other candidates today. “He’s got a level head. And he’s a person who’s had lots of growth as an individual,” he said. “There’s not one of us that doesn’t do things that we shouldn’t do.”

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.

Comments