Barack Obama, Federal Government, Movies, Politics, S.D.N.Y., U.S. Attorneys Offices

Is President Obama A Plagiarist?

There are (many) legitimate criticisms of President Obama to be made, from both the right and the left. But reasonable people can agree that there are also many ridiculous ones.

He’s a Communist! He’s not a U.S. citizen! He’s a closet Muslim who wants to institute sharia law in the United States!

How about: he’s a plagiarist!

It’s true of Vice President Joe Biden. Is it true of President Obama?

(Please note the UPDATE added below.)

Back in May, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara delivered an awesome commencement speech at Harvard Law School. In his remarks, Bharara drew on a popular movie, The Departed, to offer career advice to the graduating class:

The Departed is set around here, in the Boston area, and it’s loosely based on notorious mobster Whitey Bulger. So you can see why I might like this film. Mark Wahlberg plays a cop, and there’s a scene where a law enforcement operation goes south. Wahlberg’s character is upset and he starts asking questions.

Somebody says to Wahlberg, “Who the F are you?” And Wahlberg says, “I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.”

Bharara proceeded to urge the grads to focus on “being the guy who does his job,” no matter how boring, unpleasant, or difficult that job might be.

Yesterday, during a speech in Austin, President Obama had this to say about Speaker John Boehner’s planned lawsuit against the president:

There’s a great movie called ‘The Departed’ — a little violent for kids. But there’s a scene in the movie where Mark Wahlberg — they’re on a stakeout and somehow the guy loses the guy that they’re tracking. And Wahlberg is all upset and yelling at the guy. And the guy looks up and he says, ‘Well, who are you?’ And Wahlberg says, ‘I’m the guy doing my job. You must be the other guy.’ Sometimes, I feel like saying to these guys, ‘I’m the guy doing my job. You must be the other guy.’

To those of you who preferred Mindy Kaling’s HLS speech over Preet Bharara’s HLS speech, I ask you: has President Obama lifted any of Kaling’s material lately?

Assuming that the president got the idea to cite The Departed from Bharara — not an unreasonable assumption, given that Bharara’s speech was delivered so recently and at Obama’s alma mater — did the president commit “plagiarism”? Not really. Obama used significantly different wording — less faithful to the film than Bharara, who noted the profanity in the scene (“Who the F are you?”) — and the “original” material of Bharara was itself borrowed, from the underlying movie. At worst, it’s a repeat of what Obama did with Deval Patrick’s words back in 2008 — a case of “poor footnoting,” as Jack Shafer of Slate put it.

In further defense of the president, it’s also possible that the president — or, more likely, his speechwriters — came up with this reference to The Departed completely independently of Bharara. After all, the “you must be the other guy” line is a famous line from one of the past decade’s most widely viewed films.

UPDATE (7/12/2014, 9:45 a.m.): The best defense of the president: he made a reference to The Departed back in a 2009 speech (at 7:40), as one knowledgeable reader pointed out to us.

Should conservatives get on Obama’s case about this possibly inadequate attribution? I’d say no. Conservatives are generally fond of the unitary executive theory, which grants the president full dominion over all humorous quips uttered by lower-level executive officials. In other words, Barack Obama can tell Preet Bharara, “all your joke are belong to me.”

As we’ve mentioned, Bharara recently received his first-ever defeat in an insider-trading case. But Bharara shouldn’t feel too bad. The streak was bound to come to an end, especially given Bharara’s self-professed willingness to take on tough cases, even at the risk of losing. And getting pseudo-plagiarized by the president is a nice consolation prize.

P.S. If you want to compare the two speeches closely and see who delivered their lines better, you can check out Bharara here (around 5:30) and Obama here (via Mediaite).

Obama Uses Mark Wahlberg Line from The Departed to Express Frustration with GOP [Mediaite]
Obama Used A Mark Wahlberg Line From ‘The Departed’ To Scoff At Boehner’s Lawsuit [Business Insider]
Preet Bharara’s Speech at Harvard Law School Class Day 2014 [YouTube]

Earlier: Preet Bharara’s Awesome Harvard Law Commencement Speech
An Evening With Preet Bharara
The Trouble With Insider Trading Prosecutions

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