In reporting (complete with interactive graphics!) worthy of a story about how a newspaper’s faulty reporting helped lead a nation to war, the New York Times today came out with a stinging attack on Senator John Walsh, uncovering that he plagiarized a 14 page paper while working on his Master’s degree at the Army War College.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: it was plagiarism. Some, eager to defend Senator Walsh, have suggested that because he cited the material in footnotes, he wasn’t plagiarizing, but that’s a too-generous, and incorrect assessment. If a student in one of my writing classes submitted that paper, we’d probably have a long discussion about the appropriate attribution and sourcing in an academic paper.
The nature of the plagiarism, though, does offer some measure of defense for Walsh. It’s not the work of someone who was trying to do something dishonest; rather it suggests that Walsh, as he told the Bozeman Chronicle today, is “not an academic.” It’s the work of someone who probably didn’t entirely understand the conventions of attribution in an academic paper. Someone attempting to hide an intent to plagiarize surely wouldn’t have footnoted each of the rewritten sentences. After nearly 15 years of teaching writing, it’s easy to spot the difference between an intent to deceive and a lack of knowledge about proper citation and this was not the work of someone whose intention was dishonest.
All that being said, Walsh made a mistake and he should be held accountable for it. But the histrionics coming from the fringe anti-Democratic left and the glee of some Republicans should be tempered by the realization that this is hardly the measure of Senator Walsh as a person and hardly a sign that his campaign will be unsuccessful.
Representative Daines had better be careful about continuing to attack Senator Walsh on ethics. Even with the worst reading of Walsh’s academic record, voters have the sophistication to put this incident in the context of a 30+ year career of military service to the state and nation. A cursory look at Senator Walsh’s complete military file shows the record of a man who served in combat with distinction and who was evaluated as having “honesty and integrity above reproach” for his service and leadership in Iraq.
A person’s ethics are hardly defined by one error in judgment. Walsh has consistently served his state and his values reflect a deep commitment to the interests of the people of this state. I think most Montana voters will see the ethics of a man who put his life at risk in Iraq during a lifetime of military service and give little credence to a matter of appropriate footnotes.
If anything, the timing of the hit piece reveals just how close this race is getting. A poll released today shows the race even closer than on Monday, with Walsh only four points behind Daines. I suspect the Daines people overplayed their hands a bit here. A story about plagiarism might seem like a big deal in the silly campaign season of July, but it’s not likely to be at the forefront of voters’ minds in November. It’s an overreaction that seems in keeping with the nature of the Daines campaign, which has relied almost exclusively on character assassination to win this race.
This is no doubt a setback for the Walsh campaign and for Montanans who want a Senator who will continue to put our interests ahead of that of corporations. But this will be a long campaign still—and if the best the Daines campaign can do to distinguish itself are attacks like this, John Walsh can overcome it and win this race. Daines seems only capable of attacking, because his record and values are not in sync with Montana voters, and he’ll continue to do as much harm to himself (if not more) with every attack on Senator Walsh.
Plagiarism—intentional or not—is bad. Rejecting a principled man who made a mistake in favor a candidates whose sense of ethics is defined by dollar signs would be even worse. I trust that Montana voters will see through the increasing desperation of the Daines campaign and continue to evaluate which candidate best represents them. Senator Walsh is definitely that Senator and that candidate.