You’ve got to hand it to the New York Times for its exposé of the plagiarism committed by Senator John Walsh (D-Mont.) in the paper he submitted for his 2007 master’s degree from the United States Army War College. Walsh, who spent more than three decades in Montana’s National Guard and won a Bronze Star after his 2004-5 tour of duty in Iraq, was appointed to the Senate in early 2014 and is now in a tough race for election to his seat. Montana Democrats have made much of Walsh’s military service. The Times’ accusation of plagiarism seriously threatens that narrative.
In olden days, before we had computer-driven, heat-seeking plagiarism-discovery apps, proving that someone had plagiarized was like establishing that he had written pornography: You presented the text, made your argument and invited readers to know it when they saw it.
The Times story is vastly more advanced. It features a page-by-page “interactive graphic” of Walsh’s paper about the Middle East, titled “The Case for Democracy as a Long Term National Strategy.” Each improperly attributed passage in the paper is highlighted; when you hover over the passage, a pop-up box tells you where it really came from and how Walsh misappropriated it. The cumulative result gives new meaning to the term “dead to rights.” Worse, the plagiarism demonstrated by the story is not so old that it can be dismissed as a youthful indiscretion.
Which raises the big, unavoidable question: In this day and age, when everything is online and everyone has access to it, flagrante delicto is maybe three mouse clicks away. How can any rational human being do this sort of thing anymore?
The question is so big and unavoidable that maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by the latest turn of events. Walsh now says, as reported by the Associated Press, that when he committed the plagiarism, two years after his return from Iraq, he was in fact not a rational human being. Walsh’s head, he says, “was not in a place very conducive to a classroom and an academic environment.”