Neil Kinnock on Biden’s plagiarism 'scandal' and why he deserves to win: ‘Joe’s an honest guy'

In a 1987 Democratic primary debate, Biden sprinkled Kinnock’s phrases into his own speech and forgot to credit him – a blunder many believe cost him the presidency

Anyone under 30 might have been puzzled when Kellyanne Conway, the outgoing White House counselor, recently accused Joe Biden of serial plagiarism and presented Neil Kinnock, the former leader of Britain’s Labour party, as exhibit A.

The reference harked back to 1987 and a blunder that ended Biden’s first bid for the American presidency. In his closing remarks at a Democratic primary debate, he lifted passages from one of Kinnock’s most moving speeches without attribution. The resulting plagiarism “scandal” sank Biden’s campaign.

A generation later, Biden is preparing for three presidential debates against Donald Trump and has the full support of Lord Kinnock, now a Labour peer who always regarded the incident as an innocent mistake.

“Joe’s an honest guy,” the 78-year-old said by phone from his home in north London. “If Trump had done it, I would know that he was lying.”

A gifted orator, Kinnock made his speech to the Welsh Labour party conference in Llandudno in May 1987, kicking off a general election campaign against the Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. “Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?” he asked. “Why is my wife, Glenys, the first woman in her family in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?”

None of that, nor the passages that followed, were in his original script. He recalls: “I was making a decent speech that I’d written overnight and I knew I had the audience gripped. It was a speech about what freedom really means for the great majority of people but I knew I hadn’t lit the touch paper. So I went off my written speech and made the bit about my own family and Glenys’s family, which was obviously entirely authentic.

“As usual, even though I wrote every speech myself, the best bits were always the ones that I hadn’t written before. Anyway, that was the one that was picked up by the news and used and it benefited us in the election campaign.”

The rousing oratory featured in a party election broadcast filmed by Hugh Hudson, director of the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, that made waves internationally. In September 1987, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wrote that American presidential campaign strategists admired the way it portrayed Kinnock “as a man of character”, noting: “Senator Joseph R Biden Jr of Delaware, a Democratic hopeful, was particularly taken with it.”

Biden duly sprinkled phrases from the speech into his own remarks on the campaign trail but was always careful to credit Kinnock. However, in a debate with Michael Dukakis, Jesse Jackson, Al Gore and others at the Iowa State Fair, he rushed through the Kinnock passage in his closing statement and forgot to name its source.

Jeff Wilser’s biography, The Book of Joe, recounts: “Nailed it, he thought. The crowd was silent, enthralled, and even in tears. Biden left the stage feeling pretty good about things.”

“Only one problem. An aide leaned in and said, ‘Pssst, you forgot to credit Kinnock.’

Shit. In his hurry, he had failed to squeeze in the usual accreditation. Prior to this, he had never claimed it as his own, and it had never been a problem.”

Now it would be a problem. Kinnock, who led Labour from 1983 to 1992, says: “One of the guys working for the Dukakis campaign was the son of the then secretary of the parliamentary Labour party, Bryan Davies. He recognised it, told his superiors in the Dukakis campaign and they immediately latched on to it that this wasn’t original Joe, this was Kinnock. And the rest is history.”

The Dukakis campaign made sure the media got to know about it. In September 1987, Biden announced he was dropping out of the race. The New York Times has observed: “He has suggested his whole life might have changed if he had said two words on the debate stage: ‘Like Kinnock …’”

Senator Joseph Biden announces on 23 September 1987 that he is withdrawing from the race for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination.
Senator Joseph Biden announces on 23 September 1987 that he is withdrawing from the race for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. Photograph: Jérôme Delay/AFP/Getty Images

In 1988, Biden came to Britain. Kinnock remembers: “We had a long meeting and we had we supper together with his lad, Beau, who sadly died, and we got on like a house on fire. He’s good company and he’s one of the good fellas.”

In 2007, as Biden made a second run for president, the pair met again at his office on Capitol Hill in Washington. Kinnock says: “I went in and he greeted me and he called into the various smaller rooms and said, ‘Hey, folks, come here, I want you to meet somebody’. So his staff came out – and obviously by comparison with an MP’s staff, that’s a pretty large number – and he said, ‘Folks, I want you to meet my greatest ever speechwriter.’ And we all laughed.”

Kinnock, who lost two general elections, fervently hopes that Biden can make it third time lucky in his own career.

“I’ve got five reasons for that and they’re all my grandchildren, because whether we like it or not, the president of the United States impinges on all our lives and certainly the lives of future generations. I know that they’d be better served, like the kids in the USA, by Joe Biden than they could ever be by Trump.

“Joe is honest, he’s courageous, he’s well-informed and experienced, and most of all, he’s rational, all things that Trump isn’t. One of Joe’s greatest strengths, I think, certainly a natural attribute is that he’s normal. He really is the well-informed guy off the street and in an age when voters are looking for authenticity, he is the real thing.”

And what does Kinnock make of Trump? “Oh, God,” he says, sounding anguished. “I tell you what, I’ve got 74% left in my battery and it would run out if I were to regale you with my views. I find it profoundly depressing. My wife and I rage at the television every time the man’s on and it is a miracle that our TV has survived. So far.”

Contributor

David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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