The shelf life for bad news
Your far-flung correspondent Ed Palm here, with my body in Virginia but my spirit still back in Kitsap County. Two recent developments in particular have shaken me out of my heat-induced lethargy and prompted me to file this dispatch.
First, once again, you can take the English professor out of the classroom, but you can’t take the classroom out of him.
Pedantic English teachers everywhere must be savoring the controversy surrounding the speech Melania Trump gave on the first night of the Republican National Convention. There is no denying it: The themes and distinctive phrasing borrowed from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech did constitute plagiarism.
As I used to tell students, you must acknowledge the source whenever you borrow someone’s distinctive ideas, opinions, or phrasing, even if you are only paraphrasing rather than directly quoting. Granted, there can sometimes be a fine line between a distinctive idea or opinion and a commonplace one that can’t be attributed to anyone in particular. “When in doubt, cite!” was always my sound advice to students.
The Trump campaign at first refused to acknowledge and take responsibility for the gaffe, denying that the similarities between the two speeches were significant. Two days into the controversy, confronted with the point-bypoint undeniable evidence, they finally offered an explanation. Melania had reportedly read sections of Mrs. Obama’s speech to her speech writer, who wrote them down and blithely used them without checking them against the original. What does that say about the competence of the staff Trump employs?
If I were speaking for the Trump campaign, here’s how I would have responded to the plagiarism charge: “Yes, we should have carefully vetted that speech, and yes, Melania did echo Michelle Obama’s themes and, to a certain extent, her phrasing. But the difference is that Melania means it!”
That last sentence, if I say so myself, is unassailable. Who can say what Melania means and intends but Melania herself?
Not for nothing did the Marine Corps put me through the Public Affairs Officers Course. While I was there, I learned two lessons that would stand politicians on both sides of the aisle in good stead: (1) Bad news, unlike fine wine and good cheese, does not improve with age. (2) When you make a mistake, acknowledge it, apologize for it, and correct it if you can.
Trump defenders were quick to remind us that Vice President Biden once plagiarized. Biden being a homie, a fellow Delawarean, I remember that controversy. Early in his Senate career he was found to have borrowed a speech from an Irish politician. The difference is that Biden acknowledged and apologized for his lapse, and he was forgiven.
Apologies, however, are not in Trump’s nature. The initial refusal of Trump spokesmen to acknowledge the obvious reminds me of something an old friend used to saywhenever he heard a politician offer an implausible explanation or make an empty promise: “How G**damned dumb do they think we are?”
Pretty damned dumb, I suppose.
That second issue, I’m afraid, is just further evidence of my seriously unintegrated personality as both a Marine and an academic.
Every news report I’ve heard and read about the July 17 ambush of police officers in Baton Rouge emphasized that the killer was a former Marine. A recent headline in The New York Times was a case in point: “Baton Rouge shooter identified as ex-Marine Gavin Long.”
Ironically, news reports associating Marines with murder and mayhem always remind me of making Phi Beta Kappa. “Whatever else you achieve in life,” the professor officiating at the ceremony said, “this accomplishment will be mentioned.” I haven’t found that to be the case. (Thanks to grade inflation, making Phi Beta Kappa is no longer the exclusive honor it once was.) But should I ever do something horrendous, you can bet that the media will identify me as an “ex-Marine” — and a Vietnam veteran to boot.
Ever since 1966— when “ex-Marine Charles Whitman” climbed that Texas tower and shot 49 people — the uncompromising ethos of the Marine Corps has fueled an unfair stereotype: Ex-Marines, more so than the veterans of the other services, are likely to be deranged and dangerous.
The reality is that the Corps’ no-excuses discipline and legendary tough training develop the self-confidence, maturity, and resilience needed to roll with life’s punches. Frankly, the Corps has always appealed to young men with something to prove to those who may have underestimated or rejected them— but most of all to themselves.
In my own case, to quote Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky,” I enlisted to prove that I wasn’t “just another bum from the neighborhood.” It worked for me, and it has worked for the great majority of those who needed the mark of distinction denoted by the title “U.S. Marine.”
So I’m invoking the fairness doctrine: How about some headlines and news reports associating the title “ex-Marine” with good deeds for a change?
Contact Ed Palm at majorpalm@ gmail. com.