Column: Why is it so hard for the Trump campaign to admit that Melania cribbed Michelle Obama’s words?
We hold this truth to be self-evident, that Melania Trump borrowed thoughts and words from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech Monday night.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that when Melania Trump uttered words that sounded exactly like Michelle Obama’s words, she didn’t do her husband any favors.
Hey, did I just plagiarize the Declaration of Independence and the opening sentence of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”?
Those words are so famous, so clichéd even, that they don’t need to be attributed because everyone knows who wrote them.
But what about lifting less famous turns of phrase?
What about what happened Monday night, after a guy named Jarrett Hill, who has a YouTube channel on home design, noticed that Melania Trump’s convention speech sounded an awful lot like the one delivered by Michelle Obama in Denver in 2008?
He noted that two passages in particular used parallel language to describe parallel thoughts.
Did Melania Trump — or her speechwriters — do something wrong? Did borrowing Obama’s words cross the line? Or was it all just an embarrassing coincidence?
Watching snippets of the two speeches side by side — and they’ve been playing everywhere all day — it’s very hard to conclude that Trump’s choice of language was simple coincidence.
Social media lit up Monday night as some on Twitter pointed out that Melania Trump’s prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention sounded strikingly similar to Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech.
Anyone can spout generalities about being raised right by upstanding parents, about wanting the best for America’s children. Those are familiar tropes in political speeches.
But when Trump used the same syntax to express thoughts that Obama used in the same context (political nominating convention, spouse of candidate introducing herself to the nation), she left herself open to charges that she had helped herself to something that wasn’t hers.
Just how bad was it?
“If there is one constant in political speech writing,” former George W. Bush White House speechwriter Elise Jordan wrote in Time, “it’s that 99% of speech-writing mistakes are process mistakes, not nefarious cheating.”
Robert Reich, a former Clinton administration secretary of Labor and professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, said the flap was a distraction. He had tweeted, tongue in cheek, that he was “fine” with Trump’s speech.
“I not only hope she plagiarized all of Michelle Obama, but that Donald Trump plagiarizes Barack Obama’s 2008 acceptance speech, and that — perish the thought — if Donald Trump is president, I hope he plagiarizes most of the Obama Administration.”
Every college student is taught that plagiarism is a capital offense. But plagiarism in politics is a much different animal, Reich said. “If I had a student who plagiarized, that would be a very serious offense, possibly resulting in expulsion. But politicians who use speechwriters are in a different world.”
What Melania Trump did is not nearly as egregious as the plagiarism that helped force Joe Biden out of the 1988 presidential race. (Biden didn’t just steal Welsh Labor leader Neil Kinnock’s words, he practically purloined his life story.)
Nor is it quite as minor as then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s use of his friend Deval Patrick’s words in 2008. Patrick, the Massachusetts governor, was a friend with whom Obama swapped ideas; Patrick said he did not consider it an act of theft.
A simple acknowledgement of a mistake, and an apology, even an insincere one, would probably have tamped down the conversations that are overshadowing the second day of the Republican National Convention.
After all, Melania Trump has a reservoir of good will to call upon. Everyone knows she is not a polished public speaker. Certainly, she is used to being in the public eye — that was her job as a model — but she is has little campaign experience and does not appear comfortable behind the microphone. She is as reticent as her husband is outgoing. People get that.
“By far the simplest way of handling it is to say that she had a speechwriter and the speechwriter must have lifted parts from successful speeches,” said Reich. “That’s not a defense or justification, but it’s an explanation.”
While many high profile Republicans — RNC Chairman Reince Preibus, political operative Roger Stone, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito — acknowledged that someone should be held accountable for an obvious error, many others dug in or lashed out.
In its first official response to questions about Melania Trump’s speech, the Trump campaign sent this statement to reporters, from its spokesman Jason Miller: “In writing her beautiful speech, Melania’s team of writers took notes on her life’s inspirations, and in some instances included fragments that reflected her own thinking. Melania’s immigrant experience and love for America shone through in her speech, which made it such a success.”
Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort told reporters in Cleveland Tuesday that the issue has been “totally blown out of proportion.” He also implicated Trump’s Democratic rival. “I mean, this is, once again, an example of when a woman threatens Hillary Clinton, how she seeks out to demean her and take her down.”
When Matt Lauer asked New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie whether, as a former prosecutor, he could make a case for plagiarism, Christie replied: “Not when 93% of the speech is completely different from Michelle Obama’s speech. They expressed some common thoughts.”
Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson had a similar take. “These are values — Republican values by the way — of hard work, determination, family values, dedication and respect. And that’s Melania Trump. And this concept that Michelle Obama invented the English language is absurd.”
Anyway, like I always say, this political season is the best of times and the worst of times. Know what I mean?
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