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Commencement Season's Plagiarism Virus

The old saying still holds true: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Just ask Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). He's flattered to pieces (and a little peeved) that Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) lifted one of his signature speeches nearly word for word.

Isakson found out about the plagiarism episode just two weeks ago, after a columnist for the Augusta Chronicle in Georgia brought it to his attention. The columnist, Don Rhodes, actually thought it was Isakson who had ripped off Miller instead of the other way around.

Rhodes went to his nephew's graduation ceremony last month at Georgia Southern University, where he heard Senator Isakson's commencement address about the "six secret rules for living: learning, respect of others, ethics, love, faith, dreaming." In his column last weekend, Rhodes wrote he "especially loved" a story Isakson told about Oklahoma humorist Will Rogers, who Isakson quoted saying, "Just remember this: Always love people and use things -- never use people and love things."

Rhodes went home and Googled the Will Rogers quote and discovered "an almost identical speech about the six secret rules for living had been given three years ago" by Congressman Miller at the University of West Florida on Dec. 11, 2004.

Rhodes naturally assumed Isakson had ripped off Miller, until Isakson quickly disabused him of that misconception. After the columnist called the senator's office to inquire about the perceived plagiarism, Isakson's staff did some digging and discovered Isakson's speech on Miller's Web site -- with no attribution.

So maybe it wasn't on par with the plagiarism cases of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in 1950 or Sen. Joe Biden in 1988 - but still, the speech was dear to Isakson's heart. He wrote it for his son's high school graduation in 1988 and has given it "over 100 times in the last 20 years," Isakson's spokeswoman, Sheridan Watson, tells us.

Here's Miller's excuse: he borrowed Isakson's speech for his commencement address to the University of West Florida in 2004 and attributed much of it to Isakson there on the spot. But whoever posted it on the congressman's Web site sort of forgot to credit Isakson.

"It was certainly wrong to have it up like that and it was corrected as soon as we were notified," says Miller's chief of staff, Dan McFaul.

But all's well that ends well. Isakson's spokeswoman says the senator is just glad he could "get the record straight that this was his speech." Still, Rhodes admonished Congressman Miller in his column, which he titled, "Be honest when borrowing words."

By Mary Ann Akers  |  June 25, 2008; 3:00 PM ET
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Are you involved in some kind of bet over who can report on the least newsworthy store in the history of the media?

Posted by: Anonymous | June 25, 2008 5:22 PM | Report abuse

Contrary to a prior responder, I found this article very useful for two reasons; as a caution when reading stories about reputed plagarism (be sure to get the details right!) and as a source of many useful quotes.

Thanks for writing it!

Posted by: Brian Snow | June 26, 2008 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Just shows that Republicans will steal anything they can get their hands on!

Republicans=Total Corruption!

Posted by: Snow White | June 26, 2008 1:23 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Brian Snow: this seems to be a case of no-harm-no-foul, so it's a gentle reminder of one of the cornerstones of public integrity. Getting the quote right helps, too: I remember Bill Clinton groping for something Biblical at the signing of a Middle East peace agreement, and coming up with "blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall inherit the earth". Actually, the peacemakers inherit the Kingdom of Heaven and the meek inherit the earth. Dare we say the Prez needed a Beatitude Adjustment?

Posted by: Drew Snider | June 26, 2008 1:48 PM | Report abuse

so boring

Posted by: Anonymous | July 1, 2008 8:55 PM | Report abuse

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