Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.
Yet again, a political figure has been caught plagiarizing. This time, it’s Ben Carson, a likely 2016 GOP presidential candidate whose recent books have been big hits in conservative circles.
BuzzFeed found that Carson lifted from other works without up-front attribution in his 2012 book “America the Beautiful”:
In one instance, Carson cites wholesale from an old website that has been online since at least 2002, Socialismsucks.net.
In another example, he plagiarizes from two authors whose works he mentions in passing at earlier points in the book: Cleon Skousen, a conservative historian who died in 2006, and Bill Federer, another conservative historian, who Carson thanks in the acknowledgements for helping get his book published.
Federer pretty much responded with a shrug. And it is likely that the political world will, too, even as this is clearly bad news for Carson and probably indicates how ill-prepared he is for the big leagues. (It’s not the first evidence of that.)
But plagiarism — under the right set of circumstances — has been politically damning.
Once upon a time, Joe Biden ran for president and got run out of the race because of plagiarism accusations. He wanted everyone to move along, saying at one point he didn’t know what the big fuss was about. (Quick refresher from 1987: Biden lifted the rather poetic and very specific way British politician Neil Kinnock had described his ancestors. The line was: “Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?”)
It didn’t work out for Biden. Perhaps it was the time. Perhaps it was that he was borrowing a famous line to describe his own biography — which could be judged more harshly as crass and deceitful. (Obviously it didn’t help that his opponents flooded media outlets with VHS tapes of the speeches.)
More recently, appointed senator John Walsh (D-Mont.) got caught by The New York Times lifting huge chunks of text for his final paper as a graduate student at Army War College during his race. He dropped out and lost his master’s degree. Walsh was almost immediately declared damaged goods because his political biography and appeal had been so closely tied to his military record. He also refused to initially apologize and was already an underdog to win a full term in the 2014 election.
But Biden and Walsh these days are the exceptions. More often, politicians accused of this infraction move on. BuzzFeed and other outlets busted Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who went with a combination of an oops-my-bad and haters-gonna-hate excuse. And so far, it has worked.
President Obama was also accused of borrowing from Deval Patrick without citing him and brushed it off as an exchange between friends. Nothing to see here, folks. And as with Carson, the “victim” wasn’t at all upset about it, which helps.
Carson’s calling card is that he has a great biography. He is one of a handful of people in the world who could separate conjoined twins. His compelling story is an argument for bootstrap conservatism. If he had been caught cribbing from someone else’s work during one of his ridiculously fascinating lectures about brain health, that might be something.
But errant copying here and there for a book that is political history (not Carson’s expertise) with some biography mixed in probably won’t hurt him — and especially given how devoted and narrow Carson’s base is.
No, it’s Mike Huckabee — out soon with his own book — who should worry Carson in the 2016 race. This other stuff will probably be a footnote.