Integrity in public speech

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN, in his greatest public role in heading the inquiry into Judge Robert Bork's qualifications for the Supreme Court, yesterday tried to stamp out a fire of criticism about himself. What do his lifting from speeches by other politicians like Robert Kennedy and British parliamentarian Neil Kinnock, his disclosure of charges he had once plagiarized material for a law school paper, say about his fitness for high office - particularly his qualifications for the presidency? In a press conference, Mr. Biden admitted he erred in not attributing materials. He did face the controversy directly. But his reputation as an orator, on which his campaign set high store, has been deflated. The opposition to Judge Bork's nomination, which Biden was supposed to lead, has lost some moral urgency.

But Biden is only a couple of paragraphs of what bothers us.

Public life today is rife with borrowed ideas, borrowed words. Partly it is a matter of pretending to a greater expertise in more fields than one can master. Partly it is the effect, while campaigning, of having to deliver a half dozen speeches a day. It reflects the congressional or corporate staff approach to leadership: The politician, senator or president, becomes the man out front, the image, the mouth, for an organization that itself borrows from consultants, libraries, opinion columns, and so on. In this media age, even TV anchors, employed at high salary for their authoritative demeanor, utter lines researched and crafted by others. An industry of Cyranos exists to woo corporate Roxannes.

We all borrow to a degree. Allusion - playing off words and images against a remembered literature, which in political discourse includes phrases from the Madisons and Lincolns of history - can lend resonance. But plagiarism and derivativeness are not allusion.

Give us leaders who mean what they say and use their own words in saying it.

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