No sooner had the political storm burst over Melania Trump’s alleged plagiarizing of Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech to the Democratic Convention, when I got a call from a reporter representing Houston’s TV station KHOU11, the local CBS affiliate.
The reporter wanted to interview me on this very point. Much flattered to be regarded a veteran political speechwriter, and a little amused by all the sturm und drang, I agreed.
And herewith I give a slightly expanded version of what I told the TV reporter.
The reporter’s first question was whether Melania Trump was guilty of plagiarism.
Essentially, I said no and yes. The fact that Mrs. Trump used the same clichés and stock phrases as Mrs. Obama—such as “your word is your bond,” “do what you say,” or “treat people with respect”—is not plagiarism.
Ironically, during the Democratic primaries of 2008, some top people in Hillary Clinton’s campaign accused then-Senator Barack Obama of plagiarism because he lifted some lines from a speech given the previous year by his friend Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick.
“Don’t tell me words don’t matter,” Obama told a Wisconsin audience. “‘I have a dream’—just words? ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’—just words? ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’—just words? Just speeches?”
Patrick had used identical language during his 2006 race for governor. Patrick said this: “’We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ –just words? Just words?” ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’—just words? ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ Just words? ‘I have a dream’—just words?”
In reply to the Clinton camp’s charges, Sen. Obama retorted that he hadn’t complained when Sen. Clinton said, “It’s time to turn the page,” or that she’s “fired up and ready to go,” or otherwise used the same stock language used by him. And with that, the controversy died.
But where Melania Trump is open to a charge of plagiarism is where she said, for example, “Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”
These are not stock phrases, and she was repeating almost word for word what Michelle Obama had said in 2008: “Because we want our children—and all children in this nation—to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”
A professor friend of mine informs me that in academia, the standard measure for plagiarism is “nine words in exact sequence.” Clearly, by that standard, Mrs. Trump’s speech qualifies as plagiarism.
The reporter’s second question to me was whether or not the plagiarism issue would make a difference in the campaign. In reply, I said that it wouldn’t even be a nine days’ wonder. After all, it is not Mrs. Trump who is running for president; it’s her husband.
This case is not like 1987, when Senator Joe Biden was forced to end his own campaign for president largely because he was found to have plagiarized a speech by British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock.
I went on to say that the whole episode may evaporate in an instant if Donald Trump plagiarizes Richard Nixon in his acceptance speech on Thursday night. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, has already said that Mr. Trump is modeling his acceptance speech on Richard Nixon’s acceptance speech at the 1968 Republican Convention. The question is, how close does Mr. Trump plan to come to what Nixon said fifty years ago?
I looked up the text of Nixon’s acceptance speech, and there is certainly a lot of language that Mr. Trump could appropriate to his advantage. For example:
“America is great because her people are great … America is in trouble today not because her people have failed but because her leaders have failed. And what America needs are leaders to match the greatness of her people.”
So it will be interesting to see if Mr. Trump cribs from Nixon, or if the flap over his wife’s speech causes him to have his writers re-work his final draft to bullet-proof it against charges of plagiarism.
Speechwriters and political junkies will want to have a copy of Nixon’s 1968 speech handy for comparison on Thursday night when they listen to whatever Mr. Trump finally decides to say.
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