Imagine if you walked into your office one day and literally every wall had a giant poster with your smiling face on it. Not only that, your name is on every piece of paper, the receptionist says it every time he answers the phone, and some people are wearing buttons with your name on them, too. When you look around at the staff, they aren't just engaged in some activity with a common goal like in any enterprise, all the component parts of that goal are about you. That guy over there? His job is to get you on television and get you quoted in the newspaper. That woman in the corner? She writes legislation that you then claim you wrote. That one on the right? Her whole job is setting and keeping track of your schedule. Those two down the hall? They write speeches that you deliver and op-eds that go out under your name.
Not even the most powerful CEO has an operation as focused on one person as even a mid-level politician does. The only thing that compares is whatever staff I assume people like Beyoncé have around them. Rand Paul is most certainly not Beyonce, but he has 53 people who work for him, about typical for a United States Senator. And some of them apparently never learned that taking other people's words and passing them off as your own is considered bad form.
In case you haven't heard, in the last week or so we've found out that Paul gave a speech that included a lengthy description of the movie Gattaca, a description lifted word for word from the movie's Wikipedia entry. And he gave a speech that included a description of the movie Stand and Deliver, lifted from that movie's Wikipedia page. And he lifted a part of another speech from an AP story. And he lifted a part of a speech from a Focus on the Family report. And he copied part of a column he wrote for the Washington Times from an article in The Week. And he plagiarized reports from the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation, and an article in Forbes, in his 2012 book Government Bullies.
You have to work hard to commit that much plagiarism. Paul's response has been an occasional admission that he and his staff are very busy, combined with the sort of petulance you'd expect from a teenager being asked to clean his room. "What we are going to do from here forward, if it will make people leave me the hell alone, is we're going to do them like college papers," Paul told The New York Times. "The standard I'm being held to is a little different than everybody else," he whined to CNN "They're now going back and reading every book from cover to cover and looking for places where we footnoted correctly and don't have quotation marks in the right places or we didn't indent correctly." That is so totally unfair! I mean, people are reading the things he wrote to see if he plagiarized anything? What's next—are they going to start checking to see if the statements he makes are true? This is like something out of 1984! One thing's for sure, nobody who runs for president is subjected to this kind of scrutiny.
Paul keeps talking about the "footnote police," and saying things like "I'm being unfairly targeted by a bunch of hacks and haters." But he genuinely seems not to understand what plagiarism is. So let's help him out, because this isn't all that complicated. There's a close analogy in copyright law, the core principle of which is that while you can't copyright an idea, you can copyright the expression of an idea. Similarly, when you write a speech or an op-ed, you can repeat other people's ideas as much as you like. But you can't repeat their actual words as if they were your own.
I doubt that whichever of Paul's many staffers is responsible for all the plagiarism was on a series of tight deadlines and said, "Screw it—nobody will notice." More likely is that they didn't even understand that what they were doing was wrong. Perhaps it was some young recent college grad, a well-worn copy of Atlas Shrugged in his briefcase, who believes that it's the privilege of world-changing men of action like him and his boss to take what they want and leave the complaining to the worthless little people. But if you're going to rise by the labors of those who work for you, you have to take the heat when they turn out to be ignorant of the basic principles everyone else lives by; as Steve Benen has pointed out, there are 99 other senators just as busy as Paul who manage not to steal other people's words. And now, the hacks and haters are on Rand Paul's trail. Who knows what else they'll find.