There is no reason to go out of the way to be nasty about Melania Trump, an accidental political wife who surely never expected to be playing the part of the immigrant spouse, making the warm and wifely case for her husband’s cold, cruel, anti-immigrant presidential bid on the opening night of the Republican National Convention. But you don’t have to be nasty to her to point out that she was badly ill-served by her husband’s campaign apparatus tonight.
Most egregious, as first pointed out by Jarrett Hill on Twitter, is that Melania’s speech appeared to be at least partially lifted from the very successful convention speech given by Michelle Obama in 2008. A large portion of Trump’s oratory — about her parents’ lessons “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” — directly repeated Obama’s story of how she and her husband were both raised with certain values, “that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do, that you treat people with dignity and respect.”
This is a bad — really, really bad — error. It’s the appropriation of a historic speech, made eight years ago by the first African-American First Lady of the United States, by the white woman who wants to succeed her in the White House. Who knows why it happened. Maybe, as Melania claims, she wrote the speech largely on her own; she could have used Michelle’s excellent speech as a model, hewing way too close to it. More likely is that Trump’s staff or speechwriters wrote it, used Michelle’s speech as a model and hewed way too close to it. Either way, it was political malpractice to let this woman go on national television and deliver these stolen words.
But even without the plagiarism, Melania’s speech was bad. Dressed in snowy white with poofed things at the end of her sleeves, she looked beautiful, and spoke pleasantly enough. But the words that came out of her mouth were empty, meaningless. If she had really paid attention to Michelle’s speech from 2008, what she should have taken from it was a lesson about the power of narrative specificity: Michelle told detailed, intimate stories of her life as a young person and her life as a wife and mother, details that shed light on her life, her personality, the nature of her relationship with her husband. There was the story of her father, struck in middle age with multiple sclerosis, working every morning to button his shirt and using two canes to cross the room to kiss his wife; there was the memorable scene of Barack driving Malia home from the hospital, “inching along at a snail’s pace, peering anxiously at us in the rearview mirror, feeling the whole weight of her future in his hands …”
Melania’s task should have been to humanize her cartoonish thug of a mate, whether by offering a clear picture of herself, of him, or of their family life together. But short of offering the names of her sister, the country of her birth, and her interest in “the incredible arena of fashion,” Melania provided no detail, no specificity. Instead, she delivered 20 minutes of sentences that seemed to emerge at random from a Bland Platitude Generator, a disconcertingly large percentage of which aimed to reassure an audience that her husband actually has cared about the United States prior to 2016:
“When it comes to my husband I will say that I am definitely biased and for a good reason. I have been with Donald for 18 years and have been aware of his love for this country since we first met.”
“Like me, he loves this country very much.”
“The only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”
“My husband has been concerned about our country as long as I have known him.”
“With all of my heart, I know he will make a great and lasting difference.”
“He will never give up and most importantly he will never let you down.”
“His achievements speak for themselves.”
Trump’s “kindness is not always noted but it is there for all to see.”
“There is no room for small thinking, no room for small results; Donald gets things done.”
“My husband’s experience exemplifies growth.”
“The race will be hard fought all the way to November. There will be good times and hard times and unexpected turns.”
None of these sentences meant anything. They were words without content; clichés as empty and airy as the poofs at the end of her sleeves. Perhaps if she’d had a better speech writer, she wouldn’t have had to steal material from Michelle Obama. But she didn’t have a better speech writer, she didn’t have a better adviser, she didn’t have a better husband, and what Melania Trump is about to have is one of those hard times and unexpected turns she so confidently and blandly predicted. Sad!