Late last month I reprinted (reposted?) a piece of mine that originally ran at Salon.com. I argued that Obama shouldn’t be slammed for borrowing words from another man’s speech, since political oratory has the same relationship to plagiarism that life forms have to carbon. As an example, I gave a line I once wrote for Mondale which has since been lifted thousands of times: "In Reagan's America, a rising tide lifts all yachts."
I just now got around to reading all the responses on Salon.com, and I’m glad I did. The 43rd and last comment rewarded me with one of those surreal flashes where for a moment you wonder whether it’s you or the other guy who just got off the space ship:
Jerome Doolittle was a late arrival (by at least 21 years) to the rising tide metaphor: JFK used it in a speech in Arkansas in 1963: "As the income of Michigan rises, so does the income of the United States. A rising tide lifts all the boats and as Arkansas becomes more prosperous so does the United States". The phrase is also attributed in Wikipedia to Sean Lemass, Irish prime minister, 1959-1964.
What's odd is Doolittle's change of words from "boats" to "yachts". A yacht is a symbol of lavish discretionary income, while a boat is a neutral object. A rising tide that lifts all yachts suggests a tide that favors the rich—or does so to my ear, at least. In 1984, Doolittle lit on what was already a cliche — and seriously weakened it in the attempt to make it his own.