Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but plagiarism, not so much. This is especially so if you’re Melania Trump on opening night at the Republican National Convention.
Or, is it? By the reaction, both within and without the campaign, you’d have thought the woman had lifted Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot,” or, say, Hillary Clinton’s “What difference, at this point, does it make?”
Instead, Melania Trump — or one of her speechwriters — lifted nearly 60 words from Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 Democratic convention. The lines in question fall squarely in the category of boilerplate. Banal, in other words, such that one wonders why anyone would bother.
This isn’t to disparage Michelle Obama’s speech, which was original to her and benefited from the ring of authenticity and the future first lady’s passion. Repeated by Melania, it was as inspiring as a fortune cookie platitude.
Whatever the reason or whoever was responsible for the obvious duplication, it was, just to be clear, plagiarism — someone else’s thoughts and words presented as one’s own.
A couple of words were moved, perhaps to make the plagiarist feel better, but the result was to ruin what otherwise was a rather sweet, if not quite triumphant, presentation by the foreign-born wife of presumptive nominee Donald Trump. Was anyone really expecting more?
How simple it would have been the day after to say “oops” and move along. Instead, campaign manager Paul Manafort denied the plagiarism Tuesday morning. In a matter of hours, several revisions and amendments to the denial were added. Melania wrote the speech herself. No, she had speechwriters.
Does the truth really hurt so much? (It apparently came out Wednesday, when a Trump campaign speechwriter belatedly admitted the mistake and offered to resign.)
It is doubtful that anyone beyond the media (or the Trump campaign) cares much about this scandalous affront to intellectual property (cough, cough). Half the country watching Mrs. Trump’s speech likely weren’t paying close attention to her words, given the visual distraction of her physical presence.
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But, as always, the handling of the episode has become the story. If we opened another fortune cookie, it might read: “Denial and cover-up are often worse than the crime.” Here’s another: “Always tell the truth as soon as possible.” Trump, the man who frequently says, “Believe me,” and “trust me,” may need to tweak his message.
Moreover, isn’t the view from Trump Tower that deny-and-cover is Hillary Clinton’s template? If for no other reason, Trump’s people should have fessed up to, yes, horrors, mistakenly using some of Mrs. Obama’s speech. We’re so sorry. Forgive this inadvertent display of admiration for her speech, which we studied without intending to copy.
End of story. As you know, this isn’t the way things went and an entire day of news coverage (and now this column) were devoted to the plagiarism followed by the deception.
Again, few seem to care as much as the media do in part because reporters and writers are necessarily attuned to the risks and consequences of plagiarism. Otherwise, most people recognize that leaders and CEOs have to rely on staff and speechwriters to get things right. Sometimes they screw up. In a high-profile case such as this, they’re usually fired and the ship sails on.
But Trump’s campaign made it known Tuesday that no one would be fired, leaving people to wonder what really happened. Manafort’s denial and aggressive dismissal of anyone questioning the speech’s origins suggests that the never-wrong narcissism of the boss is either contagious — or Trump likes to surround himself with mirror images.
Then again, maybe he’s protecting the boss’ wife.
The truth is, Melania probably didn’t write her speech, though as is typical, she worked with speechwriters, one of whom may have purloined Obama’s words. It’s too bad because Trump could have used this episode as an opportunity for compassion and perhaps even a sympathetic narrative:
Melania is an immigrant and a retired model. She’s not a professional writer. To prepare for her debut, she wanted to see what other first ladies have said in their speeches. She was so moved by Mrs. Obama’s speech that she wanted to offer some of those same thoughts. She just doesn’t understand the rules about “borrowing” others’ words.
They coulda made lemonade. Instead, poor Melania was left holding the lemons.
Kathleen Parker is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Washington Post. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.