“Melania’s Plagiarism”, an article by Dr. Leonel FernándezJuly 25, 2016
Initially her speech was met with enthusiasm. Her personality radiated charm and elegance. The content of her address was convincing and its tone appropriate. The final round of applause offered proof that her message had hit its mark in the hearts and minds of those present.
But by the next day everything had changed. It was revealed over Twitter that Melania Trump, former model, now spouse of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, had committed
one of the gravest possible sins in the world of ideas and creativity: plagiarism.
Mrs. Trump had copied – literally copied – full paragraphs of a speech given eight years before by now-First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, back when her own husband, Barack Obama, was declared the Democratic Party’s official presidential nominee.
The Trump campaign machine initially reacted by trying to mitigate the fallout. Spokespeople
for the campaign claimed that her words were common phrases that anyone might use – that no plagiarism had occurred in the words of this aspiring First Lady.
Nonetheless, according to reports, even the Republican candidate’s own family members were enraged. Through their fury, they could see that this mistake had tarnished the pageantry of the convention and sullied the candidate’s wife’s attempts at projecting the human side of Mr.
In the end, the campaign had to admit that a gaffe had been committed. Some tried to blame Melania herself, given that she had earlier confirmed she’d written her speech herself.
But then a new version of the story came out.
The ostensible offender was Meredith McIver, who had been charged with penning Melania’s address. She had forgotten to remove the paragraphs from Michelle
Obama’s speech, allegedly suggested by Melania, from the final version of the text.
SPEECHWRITERS IN AMERICA
The United States reveals a long tradition of professionals whose job it is to pen important people’s speeches. These speechwriters exist for all sorts of offices and functions: for businessmen, traders, artists, and, of course, politicians.
In politics, it’s said that Alexander Hamilton wrote several
speeches for the nation’s first president, George Washington, as did John Quincy Adams for president James Monroe, best known for the foreign policy doctrine that now bears his name. During the 19th century both Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant also received assistance from professional wordsmiths in writing some of their speeches.
Legend even has it that Abraham Lincoln himself, renowned as he was for writing his own pronouncements, at one point still
received help from a man who had once been his political archrival: William Seward.
Still, it wasn’t until the second decade of the 20th century that the use of speechwriters by heads of state became definitively institutionalized in the United States.
This happened with president Warren Harding, who hired Judson Welliver – the name that now graces the United States’ bipartisan society of speechwriters – to serve in that
capacity. In more recent times several outstanding speechwriters for U.S. presidents have made their mark, among them Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who wrote for John F. Kennedy; Pat Buchanan for Richard Nixon; James Fallows for Jimmy Carter; and Peggy Noonan for Ronald Reagan.
But perhaps most prominent among them all is Ted Sorensen, who like Schlesinger wrote the speeches delivered by one of the most impactful orators in contemporary U.S. history: president John F.
Kennedy and Sorensen shared a profound intellectual connection. It was said that Sorensen was Kennedy’s other half, that his identification with the president was so deep that he could read Kennedy’s mind and jump ahead to render the words he was thinking.
Such was Sorensen’s speechwriting talent that he could calculate the number of ovations a speech would draw. Part of the lore surrounding him claims that before
writing a discourse, he would ask the speaker how many applauses he wanted to get with it.
It is to this wordsmithing genius that we owe the resounding phrase from Kennedy’s inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
It was also his creativity that gave birth to the young U.S. president’s memorable speech before the Berlin Wall, Ich bin ein
Berliner (“I am a citizen of Berlin”).
The current president Barack Obama, for his part, works with two young virtuosos who have managed to embroider his speeches with the emotive force that tend to characterize appearances of the first African-American president of the United States.
Jon Favreau and Cody Keenan, both under 35 years of age, in carrying out their speechwriting duties in the White House, became artisans of
images, symbols, and meanings used by the man who has been called the most powerful on the planet.
THE RHETORIC OF POWER
As far back as ancient Greece, the role of dialectic and rhetoric in persuading or convincing citizens on issues of collective interest has been under dispute.
Aristotles covered the subject in his Rhetoric, which became the object of commentary in Plato’s dialogues, including both
Gorgias and Phaedrus. Both works developed arguments surrounding the use of language as a persuasive tool and of sophistry, manipulation, and disinformation.
Since that time political power has always been understood as a relationship between the governors and the governed. This subordination is achieved either based on the use of language, which confers a type of persuasive power; or, on the contrary, through the use of force, which
grants coercive power.
In any case, persuasion has always been preferred over coercion – the power of the word over the power of the sword. Nonetheless, to win power through persuasion, it’s essential to have a message identified with the needs, aspirations, and hopes of those hearing it.
This message, in turn, requires structuring – a rhetorical or narrative style that can simply, clearly, rationally, logically, but also emotionally
express the point being conveyed in the communication.
In addition to the simplicity and clarity of the message, those who dedicate themselves to speechwriting tend to make use of literary devices or rhetorical linguistic techniques.
From thence arises the power of metaphor, images, analogies, as ways to transmit ideas with aesthetic appeal and beauty, to produce an emotional impact and thereby a capacity to move listeners and provoke identification
with the values being expressed.
All the great discourses of different historical epochs have achieved their transcendence through the clever use of some image or metaphor that makes it memorable or indelible in its time.
We find examples in Abraham Lincoln, with his famous phrase “government of the people, by the people, for the people”; in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “we have nothing to fear but fear
itself”; in Winston Churchill’s “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”; in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream”; and Fidel Castro’s “history will absolve me.”
To return to Melania Trump: her speech also employed an impactful and exciting metaphor. Specifically, her words were: “My parents impressed on me the values that you work
hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect.
They taught and showed me values and morals in their daily lives. That is a lesson that I continue to pass along to our son.” Lovely words. Magnificent message. Eloquent testimony.
Except for one problem. They were not Melania’s own words. They were, in fact, Michelle Obama’s.
And that, in the world of letters, is what is known as plagiarism. And what’s most lamentable is that after such an impressive display of lights, music, and fanfare, in the end what will go down in history is that it was the scene of a fraud, a fiasco, a theft of words – an unfortunate instance of plagiarism wrought by Mrs. Melania Trump.