Plagiarism Charges End Joe Biden’s Presidential Campaign Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Joe Biden, a three-term U.S. senator from Delaware whose populist style marked him as a rising star in the Democratic Party, was forced to abandon his presidential campaign after he was accused of using the words of a British politician as his own in a campaign speech that was videotaped. The media also revealed his academic difficulties in law school. Biden’s career in politics flourished, despite the accusations of plagiarism and misappropriation.

Summary of Event

In November, 1965, Joe Biden, a struggling first-year student at Syracuse University College of Law, plagiarized five pages from a May, 1965, Fordham Law Review article for a fifteen-page paper in a legal methodology seminar. When the plagiarism was detected, Biden, a graduate of the University of Delaware whose undergraduate record was itself undistinguished, claimed the borrowing was inadvertent and that he misunderstood the importance of source citation (he provided only one footnote in the paper). The law school, however, citing its code of integrity, maintained zero tolerance for material theft, and Biden was given a reprimand and a grade of F in the class. [kw]Plagiarism Charges End Joe Biden’s Presidential Campaign (Sept. 23, 1987) [kw]Biden’s Presidential Campaign, Plagiarism Charges End Joe (Sept. 23, 1987) Dukakis, Michael Kinnock, Neil Biden, Joe Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Joe Biden[Biden] Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1988 Video evidence;and Joe Biden[Biden] Dukakis, Michael Kinnock, Neil Biden, Joe Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Joe Biden[Biden] Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1988 Video evidence;and Joe Biden[Biden] [g]United States;Sept. 23, 1987: Plagiarism Charges End Joe Biden’s Presidential Campaign[02300] [c]Politics;Sept. 23, 1987: Plagiarism Charges End Joe Biden’s Presidential Campaign[02300] [c]Government;Sept. 23, 1987: Plagiarism Charges End Joe Biden’s Presidential Campaign[02300] [c]Plagiarism;Sept. 23, 1987: Plagiarism Charges End Joe Biden’s Presidential Campaign[02300] [c]Publishing and journalism;Sept. 23, 1987: Plagiarism Charges End Joe Biden’s Presidential Campaign[02300]

Presidential hopeful Joe Biden decries charges of plagiarism in 1987.

(Library of Congress)

Biden retook the class and earned a low B. He graduated three years later, seventy-sixth in a class of eighty-five. He returned to Delaware and moved from law into politics. Charismatic, good looking, and with a reputation for eloquence, Biden became the fifth youngest senator in U.S. history in 1972.

In 1987, Republican Ronald Reagan’s presidency was coming to a close. Biden, by this time a popular three-term senator and chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee and considered a moderate liberal (important given the legacy of the conservative revolution over which Reagan had presided), launched what appeared to be a promising presidential campaign. He quickly became one of the front-runners as he carried his campaign into Iowa, the first of the caucus states and, hence, critically important. The Democratic field was wide open and already quite contentious. Although the field of candidates included the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Jesse Jackson, U.S. Representative Richard Gephardt, and U.S. Senator Al Gore, Biden’s most significant challenge was Michael Dukakis, in his third term as governor of Massachusetts, whose reputation as a cool economics-driven technocrat and a reserved campaigner was juxtaposed against Biden’s affable personality. Biden also was passionate and eloquent in his stump speeches and embraced a populist style that drew massive crowds and generated tremendous excitement despite his reputation for lengthy speeches.

In early September, Biden was delivering his stump speech at the Iowa state fairgrounds. As he closed the speech, he appeared to move off his prepared script and talk candidly and passionately about how, on his way to the fairgrounds, he had thought back over his own difficult childhood, about how his family had come from humble origins and had worked long hours in the forbidding conditions of the mines of northeastern Pennsylvania (he was born in Scranton). He spoke of how his family had never been able to attend college and yet managed to endure despite never having a voice in politics. He added that he was proud to now run as a candidate to be that voice. The closing surprised his staffers and was quite moving; indeed, it was vintage Biden.

Several days later a video, quietly (and anonymously) distributed to the media in Iowa, showed populist British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock delivering virtually the same remarks weeks earlier at a rally in northern England. The video juxtaposed Biden and Kinnock in vivid split screen. Biden, however, had used the same words in speeches before the speech in Iowa and always acknowledged Kinnock as the source. On the one occasion that he failed to attribute the passage to Kinnock, Biden was videotaped. Reporters jumped on the story and quickly discovered that no relative in the Biden family had ever worked in the mines, that his father was in fact fairly successful in car sales, and that most of his mother’s family had graduated from college.

The juxtaposition of Biden’s apparent earnestness against his obvious pilfering of the sentiments of the British politician was particularly embarrassing because it raised questions of Biden’s credibility and his sincerity. Accusations quickly surfaced that opposition campaigns had manipulated the media to create the controversy. Although responsibility was never established, it was held that the Dukakis campaign, then under the direction of veteran campaign coordinator John Sasso, had prepared the video. Dukakis, who maintained he knew nothing of the video, quickly acted to distance himself from what was considered a vicious attack campaign. He dismissed both Sasso and junior campaign political director Paul Tully, even as his staff repeatedly claimed the Kinnock video had been leaked to the Dukakis campaign by the staff of a struggling Gephardt eager to thwart Biden. Indeed, during the two weeks leading up to his withdrawal from the race, Biden dismissed the accusations of pilfering from Kinnock as ludicrous. Nevertheless, the damage to Biden’s campaign was done.

In a series of investigative reports, New York Times;and Joe Biden[Biden] The New York Times detailed Biden’s problems in law school at Syracuse and, more damaging, found other instances in which Biden had used phrases and passages from other speeches earlier on the campaign trail in New Hampshire and New Jersey. The newspaper reported how he had used the words of others, including those of Democratic Party icon Kennedy, Robert F. Robert F. Kennedy, to exaggerate his own public record, most notably his involvement in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.

The news coverage was devastating to the Biden campaign. In an emotional conference on September 18, he acknowledged that he had lifted the Kinnock passage and then admitted to his own mediocre academic record but attempted to defuse the implications of using Kinnock’s words by insisting that politicians often echoed each other as a tribute and that the other occasions of borrowing reflected carelessness rather than deceit. He went on to describe himself as just an average Joe, hoping to draw on Reagan’s winning legacy of charm. He vowed to stay in the presidential race.

Biden never recovered from the scandal, though, and he faced a continual barrage of questions about his intelligence and trustworthiness. Although the passages cited by reporters accounted for a small percentage of Biden’s voluminous public record of speeches, and although the media acknowledged that plagiarism was hardly a criminal offense, questions persisted. Biden’s consistently high ratings as a senator plummeted even as he continued to fend off questions of his integrity and ethics. Although dismissing the firestorm as politically motivated and trivial, Biden suspended his presidential run on September 23, only five days after he admitted to using Kinnock’s words without attribution.


Biden certainly was not the first politician or student to plagiarize, and many supporters believe he was unfairly—or overly—targeted for an action that pales in comparison to the gravity of other offenses that ruin politicians with much thinner records of public service. Even so, once the revelations of his academic record came to light, and once the media found the pattern of misappropriation, Biden was considered a politician without core values or integrity. Because of this character assessment, his initial claims of innocence reaffirmed the belief by many that he was a moral relativist and an intellectual flyweight.

Furthermore, because Biden was a promising Democratic Party visionary and one of the party’s most eloquent and articulate speakers, his downfall for plagiarism made him a point of reference for a generation of teachers and professors who, confronting the insidious opportunities for plagiarism brought by the Web, tirelessly remind students that academic and personal honesty matter.

Biden, however, survived the scandal politically. Several years after his 1987 campaign imploded, he jokingly presented Kinnock with a bound volume of his own speeches and invited the British politician to borrow what he wanted from that volume. Biden remained in the Senate and emerged in the post-September 11, 2001, era as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, working as one of the most passionate and articulate voices on international law and U.S. military deployment. When his presidential run in 2008 ended early, little notice was paid to the 1987 scandal, which indicated that his reputation and the perception of his integrity and intelligence had not been irrevocably defined by the scandal. Indeed, he was chosen as Barack Obama’s vice presidential running mate during the Obama, Barack presidential campaign of 2008, becoming vice president of the United States in January, 2009. Dukakis, Michael Kinnock, Neil Biden, Joe Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Joe Biden[Biden] Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1988 Video evidence;and Joe Biden[Biden]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Biden, Joseph. Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics. New York: Random House, 2007. Provides important context for appreciating the magnitude of Biden’s public record and his own frank assessment of the lessons learned from his failed presidential campaign.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Black, Christine, and Thomas Oliphant. All by Myself: The Unmaking of a Presidential Campaign. Guilford, Conn.: Globe/Pequot, 1989. Definitive account of the 1988 campaign that places the Biden collapse (and the staff chicanery behind its well-timed revelation) within the larger picture of how the scandal impacted the election. Valuable summary of the promise of Biden’s presence and the precipitous nature of his collapse.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mallon, Thomas. Stolen Words: Forays Into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism. 1989. New ed. San Diego, Calif.: Harvest Books, 2001. References the Biden controversy as well as other prominent cases of misappropriation of published work. Presents the definitive case for why plagiarism matters, and discusses its implications as a revelation of character, integrity, and work ethic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Patterson, Thomas E. Out of Order: An Incisive and Boldly Original Critique of the News Media’s Domination of America’s Political Process. New York: Vintage Books, 1994. Written after the 1987 campaign, this work offers a clear assessment of how the media mishandled the Biden controversy and the disturbing implications of media influence in deciding presidential nominees, especially in the United States.

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Categories: History