HOW TO GET AWAY WITH PLAGIARISM: I've decided that Blair Hornstine is a genius. The infamously litigious grade-grubber was just de-admitted from Harvard because, while writing columns for the Cherry Hill Courier-Post, she committed repeated acts of plagiarism. The targets of her larceny included a platitude-pumping speech by Bill Clinton and a sedate paper from the Nautilus Institute; they were not words that a woman of literary ambition would want to pass off as her own. I was prepared to declare that she deserves the worst just for her poor taste in prose, but then I actually read what she wrote. And lightening struck.
Here is the passage Hornstine lifted, more or less intact, from Clinton's Thanksgiving proclamation of 2000. I dare you to try to read the entire thing:
At Thanksgiving this year and every year, in worship services and family celebrations across our country, Americans carry on that tradition of giving, sharing not only with family and friends, but also with those in need throughout their communities.
Every generation of Americans has benefited from the generosity, talents, efforts and contributions of their fellow citizens. All of us have been enriched by the diverse cultures, traditions and beliefs of the millions of people who, by birth or choice, have come to call America their home. All of us are beneficiaries of our founders' wisdom and of the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform. While Americans are an independent people, we are interdependent as well, and our greatest achievements are those we have accomplished together.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let us remember with gratitude that despite our differences in background, age, politics or race, each of us is a member of our larger American family and that, working together, there is nothing we cannot accomplish in this promising new century.
Can't do it, can you? My mind was wandering before I got through the first sentence, and reading bad writing is part of my job. Hornstine's chief creative act was to make Clinton's words even worse: Where the president was satisfied to tell us that "there is nothing we cannot accomplish," Hornstine had the inspired mediocrity to add "in this promising new century."
If a writer's going to plagiarize, this is obviously the best way to escape detection. To catch her, you don't just have to stay awake through her alleged work; you have to remember hearing those exquisitely unmemorable words sometime before. And if you do remember hearing those words before, you'll still have to shrug off the obvious conclusion that that's because they're all clichés anyway.
Yes, I know: Our little Tracy Flick did get caught, so her method didn't work. But that's only because she got greedy and sued her school for the right to be its sole valedictorian, an act so egregiously petty that it launched an army of levelers itching to take her down. If she had left well enough alone, surely her thefts would have remained undetected. They would have served their purpose: not to delight or inform those who read them, but to let her add another extracurricular activity to her Harvard application.