First let’s be clear. Melania Trump plagiarized Michelle Obama’s speech of 2008. One of my unwelcome tasks as a reader of thousands of college student essays is to check for plagiarism. As soon as I see as few as 4 or 5 words in sequence which are exactly the same as someone else’s words, I know that they were copied. Even when hundreds of people write about the same thing, their word choices are unique.
In the climactic portion of her speech Melania used one passage of 23 consecutive words copied from Michelle, and another passage of 29 copied words with a few minor edits in the middle. For example Michelle’s use of “Barack and I” was edited out for obvious reasons.
Plagiarism is strike one. In high profile cases, it is often followed by strike two, denial. Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, said “to think that she would be cribbing Michelle Obama’s words is crazy.” Manafort blamed Hillary Clinton for trying to “destroy” another woman, although the Clinton campaign had nothing to do with the exposure of plagiarism. Manafort’s denials of reality are not surprising, coming from a man who has worked for some of the world’s most brutal and corrupt dictators: Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Mobutu Sese Seko in the Congo, and Mohamed Siad Barre in Somalia. Picking a manager with a resumé of supporting murderous regimes is itself a revelation about the amoral values of Trump’s campaign.
Denial doesn’t work for long, so the next recourse of public plagiarizers is a series of hastily constructed stories about how the copying happened. Before she gave the speech, Melania said, “I wrote it with as little help as possible.” But Donald Trump Jr. blamed unnamed speechwriters who “should've cleaned it up better”. Then it turned out that many paragraphs had been written by Paul Scully, who had drafted Sarah Palin’s 2008 convention speech. Later, Meredith McIver, who described herself as “an in-house staff writer at the Trump Organization”, who helped Trump write some of his books, seemed to offer the real story. Melania admired Michelle Obama and had “read me some passages from Mrs. Obama’s speech. I wrote them down and later included some phrasing in the draft that ultimately became the final speech.” This wasn’t the first time that McIver took the blame for a Trump falsehood. Trump himself blamed her in 2007 for overstating his wealth in his books.
Strike three. Her story is hard to believe. I have taken notes while interviewing people over the phone, and it’s nearly impossible to write down long passages and reproduce them word-for-word. We’ll probably never know the truth about exactly how the plagiarism developed. We do know that Melania is no stranger to lies: she dropped out of the University of Ljubljana after one year, but claimed on her website that she earned a degree in architecture and design. The Republican National Convention program repeats the lie.
The varying stories put out by the Trump campaign about the speech typify the complete disinterest in truth that is central to Trump’s entire life. To be fair, most political campaigns try to minimize potential problems by telling lies.
But there is more to this story than lying by the Trump campaign. Melania realized something that escapes the Republican Party, all those Convention delegates who shouted “Lock her up” about Hillary Clinton, and her husband Donald. Americans of both parties share the most basic ideas and values.
Michelle Obama’s family values are so much like Melania’s that Melania could make Michelle’s exact words her own. When expressing her deepest and most personal feelings, a white immigrant fashion model from Slovenia could channel a black American lawyer. Without blinking an eye, Melania bridged the divide between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats on an issue usually used as a wedge between the parties, family values.
I can’t excuse Melania’s plagiarism nor the Trump campaign’s lies about how her speech was created. I don’t think she was trying to end the cultural war waged by Republicans against “liberals” whom they routinely accuse of destroying American families. Perhaps in spite of herself, Melania Trump gave the lie to that decades-long campaign and pointed the way to a better American politics. Too bad her husband wasn’t listening.
Carle Place, New York
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 26, 2016