Sunday, February 04, 2007

Biden, My Part in His Downfall

Latest Guardian "Comment is Free Post"

Of plagiarism and primaries
Joe Biden, former Neil Kinnock plagiarist, shows the full madness of American presidential primaries.

February 2, 2007 07:58 PM
The primary season has started early in the United States. Would-be candidates have been spotted "exploring" Iowa, getting in touch with their feigned inner folksiness - and ready for next year's caucus.

Joe Biden, one of the candidates, was laughed out the race almost two decades ago for plagiarizing a speech made by Neil Kinnock in the 1987 election campaign, during which I worked in the Labour Party leader's office writing speeches and articles. (To be fair, Neil always ended up composing his own speeches based on the input from the writers.)

They were heady times. Ben Elton the comedian used to come to the office after his nightly performances and we would work on jokes late into the night. Big Ben's booming rocked us in our seats every fifteen minutes as little Ben and I, exhausted, worked out quips for the campaign speeches.

But the speech Biden stole was no joke. Neil eloquently depicted what the 1945 Labour government had done for working people in Britain. Generations of Kinnocks had hacked away at the coal face in the South Wales collieries, but he was the first to get to university.

Joe Biden misappropriated the speech in every sense of the word. He had hacked his way through a private academy with a silver spoon. I felt a sense of justice watching him fail.

Now of course, he has appropriated another trait of Neil Kinnock - who tended to take the periods and full stops out of what we wrote. Biden missed a comma while discussing Barack Obama's presidential aspirations - he said Obama was "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy" - and walked into a manufactured firestorm over whether or not he had insulted other (presumably less bright and clean) black Americans.

Biden's problems illustrate what is wrong with the weird primary process. Wannabe presidential candidates have to be contortionists as they try to appear inoffensive to as many different constituencies as possible. For example, the US heavily subsidizes converting corn into ethanol - a process that actually consumes more energy than it produces. But the huge subsidies exist in part because the primaries begin in Iowa - the largest producer of ethanol in the country - and thus all candidates must sing the praises of the fuel right from the beginning of the campaign.

And a longer, wackier primary will cost a lot more. Estimates for merely entering the race range from $30m to $100m. And like Will Sutton - who robbed banks, because that's where the money is - almost all the candidates will be going to major lobbying groups to raise cash for their campaigns.

John Edwards supports ending the war in Iraq because he knows that's where the votes are. But in a speech to the Herzliya Institute in Israel, he near enough threatened to start a war with Iran instead, bellicosely saying that no option should be left off the table in dealing with Tehran. Needless to say, pro-Israeli money also plays a big role in campaigns. And who in Florida is going to say it is time to stop pandering to the anti-Castro crazies and drop the embargo on Cuba?

It's not just the Democrats who bend themselves into the political equivalent of Moebius strip. John McCain has been passing as an honourable man, a centrist Republican who was once considered as a potential for vice presidentt on a Democratic ticket. But to win the Republican primaries, he is now transforming himself, or revealing himself - the jury is out on which it is - as a ferocious conservative hack.

The primary system, where candidates mutually vivisect their own party colleagues for a year and then expect voters to turn out in a general election to support exhausted and thoroughly slimed candidates, is a uniquely American process. Which may go a long way to explaining why so few Americans vote in the end.

This entry was tagged with the following keywords: JoeBiden, HillaryClinton, JohnEdwards, JohnMcCain, NeilKinnock, BenElton, AmericanElections

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