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Capitol Journal: When it comes to his own speech, Donald Trump should take a page from his wife’s book and lift from the past

Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, appear at the Republican National Convention on Monday.
(Paul Sancya / AP)

I have some pro bono advice for Donald Trump about what he should say in the most important speech of his life.

To borrow an old idiom: In for a penny, in for a pound. As he accepts the Republican presidential nomination and is watched by tens of millions on TV, Trump should open with this:

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror…”

Sure, he’d be plagiarizing Franklin D. Roosevelt. But FDR stole from 19th century essayist Henry David Thoreau. At least FDR tweaked the wording.

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Then Trump could segue into: “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Scholars have found a lot of Lincolnesque similarity in that John F. Kennedy inaugural speech.

And the new GOP standard-bearer could steal from the first Republican president, who asked his Gettysburg audience to resolve that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

And make America great again. “I have a dream” about that, Trump could add, parroting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Republican politicians love to equate themselves to Ronald Reagan, and GOP voters long for a reincarnation. Sorry, there’s no likeness in sight.

But Trump could easily lift the Republican icon’s comments about the “evil empire” and apply them to radical Islamic terrorists — “the focus of evil in the modern world.”

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What Trump should really crib however, is Reagan’s frequent homage to the “shining city upon a hill.” Such uplifting oratory would be very unlike Trump, but he really needs some of it.

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Reagan described the city as “tall, proud…built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace…open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

Actually, Reagan may have pilfered “the city” from JFK. He pilfered a lot of stuff, especially from movie scripts.

But I never heard anything from Reagan about Mexican rapists and murderers immigrating here illegally. In fact, he signed an amnesty bill.

So Trump should show another side of himself, assuming there is one.

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After all the pirating of paragraphs — tongue firmly in cheek — the nominee could flash a big smile, something he doesn’t do nearly enough. He could show a little self-deprecating humor, not his specialty. And be gracious.

He should credit FDR, JFK, Lincoln, Reagan and King, dishing out bipartisan acknowledgments.

And he should remind us of the old expression: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Some words are so moving and timeless, he could add, that they really belong to the world and need to be repeated.

Which leads to the point of all this: Trump and his wife, Melania, have the greatest respect for First Lady Michelle Obama, he should say. And they deeply regret plagiarizing her inspiring lines on the first night of the GOP convention without crediting her.

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It was an inadvertent screw up, he could explain. Melania got help writing that speech from a nonpolitical friend. And neither of them will be getting that person’s political help again. “I promise you.”

Pretty simple stuff. Turn it around. Capitalize on what everyone had considered a campaign distraction.

As Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first chief of staff, famously said: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste.”

Melania Trump’s partial copying of Michelle Obama is hardly a crisis. But it did show that the billionaire businessman’s political operation isn’t quite ready for prime time. It highlighted sloppy, lazy staff work. And it further raised a question about Trump’s ability to run the U.S. government.

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Updates from Sacramento »

It also smacked of a little arrogance by someone who seemingly thought that the lifting word-for-word of the first lady’s thoughts wouldn’t be noticed because they were delivered at the 2008 Democratic convention, way back in the middle ages.

Don’t blame Melania Trump. She apparently just admired some things Michelle Obama had said and wanted to say something similar. She didn’t ask for the same exact words.

“If you’re going to use someone else’s thoughts, either put them in your own words or say whose thoughts they were,” says Tony Quinn, a former speechwriter for California Republicans who edits the Target Book, a chronicle of election campaigns. “Nobody exercised quality control. Stupid.”

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Ken Khachigian, who wrote major speeches for Reagan, says “the sin” was solely the speechwriter’s. She was identified as Meredith McIver, a Trump family friend and political novice.

“A speechwriter should never allow this to happen,” Khachigian says. “When I wrote Reagan’s inaugural address, I read everyone going back to George Washington. And I remember just hoping I didn’t have one of those things floating around in my head and use it.”

The compounding Trump camp mistake, the veteran political operative says, was not immediately admitting the foul-up instead of “glossing it over and trying to argue it wasn’t plagiarism.”

But Khachigian says, “In the end, it’s not going to affect votes.”

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There’s another Kennedy line that the blowhard Trump should copy into his speech: “Let us begin anew, remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness.”

And also this one from Mikhail Gorbachev, speaking to Kremlin leaders at the turbulent end of his reign as Soviet president:

“Today you have a president. Tomorrow you may have another president. In any case, we are all one, side by side. And we shouldn’t spit on each other.”

george.skelton@latimes.com

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