WASHINGTON — Senator Scott Brown dismissed questions yesterday about how Elizabeth Dole’s words about her childhood ended up being attributed to him on his own website, calling the flap “a little silly” and a “gotcha thing” that distracts from substantive issues.
The Massachusetts Republican, who faces reelection next year, took the offending language off his website on Wednesday after a Democratic group called American Bridge 21st Century drew attention to the passage and said Brown had plagiarized Dole, the former North Carolina senator.
“It was a summer intern that put together the site; we corrected it once we found out,” he said. He suggested he had bigger issues to consider, adding, ‘we’re working on trade agreements and jobs .”
Brown said he was unaware Dole’s words had been attributed to him on his website. He declined to elaborate, so it was unclear if he ever reviewed the language before or after it was posted in his name, or who he thought wrote it if he knew about it.
Pressed to explain further, he interrupted, saying, “Please, please, please.”
“The whole gotcha thing — you guys can play that game,” he said. “There are people in campaign mode, I’m in problem-solving mode.”
The passage, which was directed to students visiting his site, was the sort of political autobiography meant to inspire.
“I was raised to believe that there are no limits to individual achievement and no excuses to justify indifference,” said the message from Brown. “From an early age, I was taught that success is measured not in material accumulations, but in service to others.”
The phrases were first contained in a 2002 campaign speech by Dole, which is available in its full length in the book “Elizabeth Hanford Dole: Speaking from the Heart.”
An article by The Associated Press from Feb. 23, 2002, quotes part of the language in question, and the passage eventually ended up on Dole’s Web site, which Brown’s office said it used as a template for Brown’s site.
Brown said that an intern built the site when his office had “very little time and resources to put things up.”
“They did it, we were notified of it, we fixed it — end of story,” he said. He scoffed at the notion that further investigation was needed into how the text ended up on his site.
Dole’s former chief of staff, Brian Nick, said that when Dole’s site served as a model for Brown’s, the content of the page in question was inadvertently transferred without being rewritten.
Nick called the issue “an innocent mistake” that Brown’s staff took quick action to fix, and that Dole is not concerned about the ordeal. He also criticized Democratic groups for attacking Brown on what he calls a “non-issue.”
Dole “knows Senator Brown well and respects him very much, and she knows this was a human error from some low-level intern or staffer. She understands we’re all human,” Nick said.
Graham Wilson, chairman of the department of political science at Boston University, doubted that the episode will prompt any votes against Brown next fall but said it could erode the image of authenticity that was central to his 2010 campaign.
“If you were a Democratic strategist, you would hope that you could perhaps use this as the jumping off point for raising in the minds of the electorate the question of whether the homey, truck-driving Scott Brown is the real story or not,” he said.
It’s hardly the first time that a member of Congress has been caught using someone else’s words. Perhaps the most highprofile case was in 1987, when then-Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. was accused of lifting portions of his presidential stump speech from a British Labor Party leader.
Roy Peter Clark, a plagiarism expert and senior scholar at the nonprofit Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., said accusations of plagiarism tend to have less effect on higher-profile public figures.
“The kind of thing that might sink the career of an assistant professor making 35 or 40 grand a year often bounces off the high and mighty,” he said. “Celebrities in our culture, whether they’re in politics or entertainment or sports, are more likely covered in Teflon than Velcro.’