Rand Paul is no longer a libertarian columnist for the Washington Times. After discovering that he lifted a passage in one of his columns from a piece in The Week, the Times let him go, and now Paul has to just be the Republican senator from Kentucky.
Paul didn’t need the money he got as a columnist. He wanted the column, and freed up staff and some of his own time to produce it every week, because it suggested he was something more than a mere senator. The blog was a signal, a burden that he took on to display his own ability. His books (bits of which have also been plagiarized), his speeches (ditto), and his columns conferred a measure of prestige. It is not necessary to write books, give talks, or have a column in a national newspaper in order to be a senator. But it can help define you if your ambitions do not end in the Russell Senate Office Building.
We voters respond to signals, because we understand and admire the sacrifices made to be able to show them. Senators are busy, which makes all this libertarian thinking and researching and writing extra impressive. In a statement published in Politico, Paul’s office offered a standard explanation: The senator has a lot on his plate, and this was an organizational slip-up.
“Sen. Paul also relies on a large number of staff and advisers to provide supporting facts and anecdotes—some of which were not clearly sourced or vetted properly,” Paul senior adviser Doug Stafford said in a statement. “Footnotes presenting supporting facts were not always used.”
Paul’s a busy guy. But that was precisely the point. A column takes time to research and reflect, which is exactly why the senator wanted to be seen pulling one off every week. He’s in the same position as Fareed Zakaria, who last year was found to have plagiarized one of his online columns from a New Yorker piece. Not because they both perhaps unintentionally stole someone else’s work, but because they were both too busy to be columnists in the first place. Zakaria, who made his name as an academic, wanted to continue to be seen as a serious, thoughtful person after he became a television host.
Zakaria’s apology seemed abject and genuine, and he was cleared of any other plagiarism. Paul has promised to reform the way his office collects and annotates research. Both are guilty of the same thing. They wanted us to see them as something more than they were, a host and a senator. That they were too busy to be less sloppy doesn’t explain the problem. It is the heart of the problem: Plagiarism, ultimately, is about wanting to be something you are not.