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Saturday, July 30, 2016

"America Is Great Because America Is Good"

My piece at The Christian Science Monitor:
"America is great because America is good,” said Hillary Clinton during her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Immediately, her critics went on social media to accuse her of plagiarizing Alexis deTocqueville, French author of the 19th-century classic, "Democracy in America." But Tocqueville never wrote any such thing.

Various forms of the spurious quotation (often including such purple prose as “pulpits aflame with righteousness”) have been circulating for decades. It is unclear where it all started, except that we do know that these words appear nowhere in Tocqueville’s works. Nevertheless, politicians of all stripes have long been fond of using the lines, usually with the false attribution. Indeed, one repeat offender was none other than President Bill Clinton. He credited Tocqueville with saying “America is great” on many occasions – including the video that preceded his own acceptance speech at the 1996 Democratic convention.
It’s purely a guess, but it seems plausible that Mrs. Clinton or her speechwriter heard the phrase in that video and decided to recycle it 20 years later. One cannot charge her with plagiarizing Tocqueville since the latter didn’t write it in the first place. But was she plagiarizing her husband? Maybe it doesn’t count if it’s all in the family, or perhaps the phrase is so short and familiar that it comes under the heading of “common knowledge.” I will leave such judgments to the experts in literary ethics.