Jack Kemp and media double standards

Jack Kemp's recent passing reminded me of one of the more glaring examples of media double standards in the past few decades. What follows is “old news” in that it happened years ago, but it is new insofar as, to my knowledge, it has never been publicly discussed.

In 1987, as you probably know, Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Joe Biden included in his speeches a few lines originally written and spoken by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. Biden attributed the lines to Kinnock.

Until, one day, he didn't - and his presidential campaign came crashing down. Here's how the Chicago Tribune described the Biden/Kinnock controversy last year:

Twenty years ago, Biden was, in a sense, the Obama of his time, a young turk of a politician with a gift for soaring, transcendental rhetoric. But his first bid for the presidency imploded in 1988 [sic] when he was accused of plagiarizing a speech by British politician Neil Kinnock that described the candidate's working-class roots. Biden was forced from the race after the campaign of eventual nominee Michael Dukakis circulated a videotape with Biden failing to give credit to Kinnock for a speech he gave in Iowa.

Biden, however, had credited Kinnock with the remarks in his other speeches, leaving many of his supporters at the time -- and long after -- feeling like Biden was pushed from the stage unfairly.

Nine years later, Jack Kemp was the Republican Party's vice presidential nominee. In that capacity, Kemp liked to tell the story of a boy in a Chicago public housing project who, upon being asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, gave a conditional reply: if he grew up, he would like to be a bus driver. The story wasn't Kemp's; it appeared in Alex Kotlowitz's book There Are No Children Here. And Kemp attributed it to Kotlowitz.

Until, one day, he didn't. Then, another day, Kemp explicitly claimed the story as his own. Then he did it again.

Here's how the Washington Post's Al Kamen described Kemp's speeches in an October, 1996 article:

As anyone who's played “telephone” can tell you, stories often change slightly with each retelling.

Take vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp's oft-used story about a 10-year-old boy at Chicago's Henry Horner public housing project. The little boy responded to a question from reporter Alex Kotlowitz about what he wanted to be when he grew up.

The boy said “if,” not “when,” he grew up, he wanted to be a bus driver.

In his acceptance speech in San Diego in August and a week later at a black journalists convention, Kemp said he read that account in Kotlowitz's 1991 book “There Are No Children Here.”

By Sept. 30 in Palo Alto, Calif., Kemp dropped the middle man, Kotlowitz, and said he was at the project and “a little boy was asked . . . ”

By Oct. 12, Kemp is talking directly to the child. “I was in Chicago at a public housing community,” Kemp said in Stockton, Calif. “I asked a little boy what he wanted to be when he grew up.” Later that day in Medford, Ore., he said: “We want a country in which no little boy ever again says to me, as he did in Chicago's Henry Horner public housing. . . . He said, 'Mr. Kemp, if I grow up . . .' ”

Hey, much shorter and to the point in the revised version.

Joe Biden's presidential campaign pretty much ended the day he forgot to attribute a few lines to Neil Kinnock. Twenty years later, the media still brings it up. But nobody much cared that Jack Kemp repeatedly claimed Alex Kotlowitz' experiences as his own. That Post article by Al Kamen was, I believe, the only news report about Kemp borrowing the story.

Remember how Joe Biden has been ridiculed for the Kinnock speech? How Al Gore was ridiculed for (supposedly) taking credit for things he didn't do? Jack Kemp never got that treatment. In the Fall of an election year, just weeks before election day, the Republican Party's Vice Presidential nominee was caught doing pretty much exactly what Joe Biden had done - except Kemp was caught doing it repeatedly - and the media yawned. The Washington Post put it on page A19 - and that was more attention than anyone else gave it.

I imagine those who want to deny the existence of a double-standard will say “Ah, but there was video of Biden's comments, and an opposing campaign shared video with reporters. So of course it got more attention.”

Well, there was video of Kemp's comments, and the opposing campaign circulated it to reporters.

I know this the same way I know about Kemp's borrowing of Kotlowitz's story: I was the person who discovered it. I was a researcher for the Democratic National Committee at the time, and I was watching a tape of Kemp's speech in Stockton when I noticed him telling Kotlowitz' story as though it was his own. We had tapes of the different versions of Kemp's speech; we shared them with reporters.

And to this day, as far as I can tell, there has been only one news report that has so much as mentioned Kemp's appropriation of Kotlowitz' experiences at Henry Horner.

Now, for the record, I don't think Kemp's use of Kotlowitz' story should have been an international scandal that dogged him for decades. Politicians give a lot of speeches and tell a lot of stories; it's inevitable that things are going to get jumbled from time to time. I assume Kemp made an honest mistake. It may well be that one blurb deep within the Washington Post was all the coverage Kemp's mistake deserved. But that's certainly not how the media treated Joe Biden, or Al Gore when he (supposedly) took credit for the experiences of others (see: Love Story, Love Canal.)