AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now, a story about politics and plagiarism. The New York Times is reporting that John Walsh, a Democratic senator from Montana, lifted substantial portions of his master's thesis from various sources without attribution. He wrote that thesis at the U.S. Army War College in 2007. The senator's office told The Times he was taking medication and seeing doctors at the time after returning from a stressful tour of combat duty in Iraq. Walsh was appointed to the Senate seat earlier this year. He'll be on the ballot in Montana in November. And joining us to talk about this case and other instances of plagiarism and politics is NPR's senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. And Ron, let's start with exactly what the senator is accused of and the evidence.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: The evidence is documentary and striking. In his 14-page paper required for that degree at the Army War College, lengthy passages are appropriated from other authors. And the paper, for example, ends with recommendations that are taken verbatim from a previous report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And the senator's office has really not tried to dispute these correspondences, as laid out in The Times.
CORNISH: As Senator Walsh himself had any reaction to this?
ELVING: He has said he did not intend to do anything wrong and that this was a mistake.
CORNISH: Now, as we mentioned that this thesis is from seven years ago, why would this instance of apparent plagiarism come to light now?
ELVING: As you noted, the senator is on the ballot this November. He was appointed to the seat that was vacated by the new ambassador to China, Max Baucus. So there's greater interest in Walsh among journalists and opposition researchers. Beyond that, it's hard not to notice that just yesterday, the Senate broke a filibuster against a bill for which Walsh is the main sponsor. And that bill would make it more difficult for U.S. corporations to move their headquarters overseas to avoid taxes. So he is having a moment of prominence in the Senate and moving a piece of legislation that is controversial.
CORNISH: How serious a charge is this politically? I mean, what kind of effect could this have on the Senator's career?
ELVING: The record of how plagiarism accusations affect politicians is quite mixed. It's surely an embarrassment. It's an obstacle for anyone in politics. Back in 1987, we saw Joe Biden, who was then a senator from Delaware, give up his presidential campaign that year because of revelations that he had borrowed parts of his speeches from Robert F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, a British politician. There was also an academic part to that scandal because he was shown to have had a plagiarism incident back in Syracuse Law School.
CORNISH: And obviously Joe Biden recovered.
ELVING: Yes, he gave up that presidential run but came back to the Senate, was reelected several times and even ran for president again leading up to his present job.
CORNISH: It's not uncommon to hear accusations about various politicians stealing from each other. How much does an incident like this, with an academic paper and the formality that comes with that, make a difference?
ELVING: In this time of social media, we see quite a few borrowings back and forth. But there are also representations that somebody such as Senator Rand Paul has borrowed some of things that he's put in articles and op-eds and put in his speeches. And it really is a question of how close it comes to the essence of your political personality. If you're misrepresenting something - let's say if John Walsh had misrepresented elements of his 30-year career in the military, that would be a lot closer to the center of his identity as a political commodity and a personality. So apart from the right and wrong of it, the political fallout depends on the situation and what kind of relationship you already have with the voters.
CORNISH: That's NPR's senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Ron, thanks so much.
ELVING: Thank you, Audie.
CORNISH: As for Senator John Walsh, a faculty review board at the U.S. Army War College is going to investigate the plagiarism charges. If they're found to be true, his degree could be revoked.
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