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Obama, Gingrich and 'Winning the Future': Petty Larceny or Fair Game?

3 years ago
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The phrase that President Barack Obama used 10 times in his State of the Union address, and at least five more times during a visit to Wisconsin on Wednesday, is also the title of a 2005 book by Newt Gingrich. Wherever they are on the political spectrum, it seems great minds agree that America must "win the future."

Gingrich, the former House speaker and habitual Republican presidential prospect, published "Winning the Future" in January 2005. He subtitled it "A 21st Century Contract With America" and laid out his remedies for terrorism, godlessness, flagging patriotism, too much spending and not enough math and science education.

In two days Obama has made the phrase his own and used it to promote his own solutions to the problems he sees. "We weren't aware at first of the Gingrich tie, but it wasn't a concern," White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer told me in an e-mail. He said it wasn't a concern because the phrase is a common one. The White House became aware of the Gingrich connection "recently," Pfeiffer said. Before the speech? Yes.

Among conservatives and in Newtworld, there was chortling and some scorn over Obama's State of the Union theme. "I wrote a book called 'Winning the Future,' " Gingrich said Wednesday on "Fox & Friends." "I love the title. But he didn't tell us anything about winning the future."

My Politics Daily colleague Matt Lewis wondered if Obama's 2012 State of the Union speech would be called "To Renew America" (another Gingrich book). "It's perhaps problematic when your best signature line is the title of a Newt Gingrich book," Lewis tweeted Tuesday night.

In truth, before "Winning the Future" was the title of a Gingrich book, it was the title of another book. The first "Winning the Future" was published in 1994 by B.G. Verghese, a prominent Indian writer, historian, economist, political figure and policy expert.

The phrase has turned up periodically since then – as a headline in The Economist over a 1998 piece about the march toward racial, ethnic and gender diversity in sports, in a 2000 peace proposal from the president of the Philippines, as the title of a keynote speech about European competitiveness at a January 2005 "Summit for the Future" in Amsterdam and the title of a seminar at the Central Asia Trade & Export Finance Forum in April 2005 in Kazakhstan.

Gingrich appears to be the first U.S. politician who took the phrase and ran with it. Dan Kotman, director of online communications at American Solutions, welcomed participants to an internet live chat on the State of the Union by calling Obama's "winning the future" focus "a tad ironic." He then linked to five ideas Gingrich said Obama should embrace in his speech. Here's what ensued:

Comment from Julie: I would be willing to bet that Obama will not mention one of Newt's 5 focus points. These things are not important to the Left.

Comment from Mark: How about ridding this nation of the IRS and replacing it with a simpler more fair tax?

Comment from Cindy Sue: He would be one sly fox if he did. It would make him look good.

Chalk one up for the sly fox. With some variations, and allowing for their vastly different world views, Obama touched on everything Gingrich suggested. Utilize all of America's vast energy reserves, from wind to nuclear? Check. Tax reform? Check. Leaner government? Check. Education reform to emphasize math and science? Check. Tort reform to cut down on frivolous lawsuits? Check.

"Imitation is the greatest form of flattery," R.C. Hammond, a spokesman for American Solutions, said Wednesday. "If stealing Newt's good ideas helps the country, that is a good thing."

The only thing arguably stolen is a three-word phrase, and strategists say the protocol is murky. "Winning the future isn't something that somebody could trademark," said Republican pollster David Winston, a Gingrich adviser. "Having said that, in terms of a major political statement, you need to be careful because you run the risk of it sounding like you lifted it."

There's also a practical consideration, Winston added: "When you think you've got the great phrase, the first thing you need to do is Google it . . . just to understand the implications of who you might be associated with. You might be perfectly fine with that association, or you might decide it doesn't work."

Democratic speechwriter Bob Lehrman says some phrases, such as "there's more work to do" or "it won't be easy," are boilerplate that no politician need worry about using. At the other extreme, he told me, was Obama's use of rhetoric from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick during the 2008 campaign. Patrick – an Obama friend who shared the same strategist – said it was fine for Obama to use his "just words" riff. But Lehrman called it "really not permissible."

The Obama State of the Union theme is somewhere in the middle -- simple words but "distinctive enough that you would look for a source," Lehrman said. In this case you would have found it instantly. On Wednesday, after the big speech, the Gingrich book was still coming up as the first, second and third hits in a Google search of "winning the future."

The phrase has been so strongly embraced in the last two days by pundits, headline writers and Obama himself that its ownership may be in transition. Assuming two years of Obama exhorting the nation to win the future, that Google fixation on Gingrich is headed for the mists of cyberhistory.

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46 Comments

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Peggy

Dear Mr. President;
We need jobs. We need Congress to pay back the money they "borrowed" from the SS fund. We need jobs. We need our borders closed. We need jobs. We don't need two hours of repeated speeches and empty promises. We need jobs.
Sincerely,
an American Citizen

January 27 2011 at 8:11 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
hbow11

Why does it always have to boil down the "left/right" in my opinion the presidents speech was well delivered and had a good message. If our nation is going to compete we need to slim the divide. The theme was America and how can we compete in the 21st century. The posers and those that tow the party line will be left or righted in their tracts. This is a new century, as living beings on this planet we use in one day what it takes nature 10,000 days to create, and a technology that even the inventors can not keep up with. Out dated ideas need to change the first being the left/right let's fight mentality.

January 27 2011 at 7:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Rebecca

If Obama "stole" the phrase "winning the future" from Newt, then Newt must have stolen it from one of the previous users. That said, this is stupid. Newt just pointed that he'd used the phrase as a title to one of his books in order to try to steal the credibility of Obama's SOTU.

January 27 2011 at 6:47 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
jffrybrk

I've said "Winning the Future" several times in speeches since 1984. I think they both stole this line from ME.

January 27 2011 at 5:31 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
jwen477

No one did any 'stealing' simply because titles of works cannot be copy righted.
The work itself is, but not titles. So this is - once again - much ado about nothing!

January 27 2011 at 5:29 PM Report abuse -5 rate up rate down Reply
linmarco

Stealing lines from whom? Most of the written output from our politicians is mediocre at best. Moreover much of what passes fro genius among elected officials is glorified mediocrity.

January 27 2011 at 5:08 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
Ol Bob

Of course, a leopard can't change his spots, but he can say he has.

January 27 2011 at 4:58 PM Report abuse +14 rate up rate down Reply
diddysmif

Now everyone in America's part of the national debt is over $43000. All of you who are proud of Obama's getting us into this mess please remit your portion now!

January 27 2011 at 4:49 PM Report abuse +18 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to diddysmif's comment
linmarco

Obama? Do you realize how long it has taken to get the national debt up to this point?

January 27 2011 at 5:00 PM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply
bthered

Newt is a "Has Been", it's all about Sarah Palin now.

January 27 2011 at 4:37 PM Report abuse -16 rate up rate down Reply
Cicero Ins.

Interesting news today.

Story One: Our government is in dire danger of financial collapse without a new loan and raising the debt limit.

Story Two: ObamaCare Spending only 600 billion a year.

If our government is in that bad of shape, and I do not dispute that, why are they adding entitlement programs? Obama knew when he was voted in, like the rest of us did, that this country was in a financial crisis.

Where is the money to fund this coming from? Medicare. You baby boomers and those already on Medicare, look out your benefits are about to be stolen. Yes, STOLEN.

January 27 2011 at 4:35 PM Report abuse +20 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Cicero Ins.'s comment
linmarco

Using this logic let congress refuse to raise the debt ceiling and let the country default. You know what? The complainers would then start complaining about the coluntry defaulting.

January 27 2011 at 5:11 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

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