Fierce backlash over John Walsh plagiarism

U.S. Sen. John Walsh speaks during a roundtable discussion with students and education officials about the Federal Student Loan Refinancing Bill on Thursday, April 17, at Montana State University. (Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez/Chronicle)

Montana Sen. John Walsh has been in trouble this week after the New York Times demonstrated that he had plagiarized large portions of the final paper he wrote in the U.S. Army’s War College back in 2007.

Campaign trackers are saying this is a devastating, if not fatal, blow to his bid for election to the Senate this November against Republican Rep. Steve Daines.

I storified some of the reaction I found today. Predictably, veterans are unhappy that Walsh mentioned post-traumatic stress in connection with his plagiarism, an especially troubling prospect considering Walsh has used his military background to court the veteran vote, and according to our own reporter Troy Carter, Montana’s estimated 101,600 military veterans represent 11.4 percent of the voting-age population.

Meanwhile, Democrats are supporting him fully, at least in words. Democratic bloggers are asking why one incident of dishonesty speak for the whole man and wondering at the timing and origin of this political torpedo.

By far, though, my favorite reaction so far is this one, which Twitter brought to me tonight.

The former writing teacher in me is laughing mightily — and then sighing deeply. You know you’ve made the big time when you’re lampooned on the “Tonight Show.” Or, as the distinguished mayor of Bozeman put it this morning:

But seriously…

On a more serious note, some supporters of Walsh have asked in comments on the Chronicle’s Facebook page and on our articles why this is even a story, and as I noted above, they have asked us to do “real reporting” on the timing of this story’s release.

Is this a story? Yes. Does the single incident of academic dishonesty so far found in Walsh’s past define his whole character? Perhaps not. But Walsh is a public figure, and his mistakes — even seemingly small ones — have consequences for him. And right now, those consequences are a War College investigation into his writing and a media firestorm that’s threatening his campaign. The Chronicle simply cannot ignore it. It’s news.

As for the timing of the release — just a week after a poll showed Walsh closing the gap on Daines in the race… Well, you’re adults. You’ve watched “House of Cards.” Do we really need to explain where the news tip probably came from? It’s politics, and tipping off reporters isn’t illegal.

Regardless of how the Times got the story, once it broke, it was news. And you can’t put that cat back in the bag. Walsh is riding a tidal wave in a dinghy with only a tiny oar to steer with. We’ll have to see where he washes up, if he survives.