As the evening wore on at Monday’s opening of the Republican National Convention, I worked on other problems and projects until I turned to my TV in the midst of ex-New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s screaming and arm waving. His voice became more hysterical as he tore into President Obama and Hillary Clinton, the assigned targets of the evening.
I had never heard Melania Trump speak and I saw her dignified presence as a relief. My guess was that, besides revealing the “human side” of her husband, she was meant to symbolize another non-Hillary identity of the campaign. Her husband would later praise her with, “Her speech and demeanor were absolutely incredible,” never sensing that his last word would be literally more true than he imagined.
By midnight social media had spread the word that her text had been plagiarized, i.e., key passages were word-for-word from Michelle Obama’s address to the Democrats in 2008. The networks stayed up late to cover the story, re-broadcasting key passages: both praise the “integrity, compassion and intelligence” of their families, and say, “we treat people with respect...we pass our lessons to the next generation...we want our children to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is in the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”
Plagiarization is to present the work of another writer as your own by using the other’s words and not giving the credit to the original writer. It is a serious offense. If a student uses the results of another’s research in a term paper without crediting the real author, he will at least receive an F, the offense will be recorded in his file and another offense could lead to dismissal. A journalist who plagiarizes may be fired. An offending college president would have to apologize to the faculty. Offending historians live with spoiled reputations.
Mrs. Trump told a reporter earlier that she wrote her talk, “with some help.” New Jersey governor Chris Christie says it’s not plagiarism because only seven percent was stolen. So Monday night from midnight to 1:00 a.m., the TV pundits debated among themselves while the Trump campaign ducked the problem. But one thing was clear. The responsible person—the one who inserted Michelle Obama’s material into Mrs. Trump’s speech— should quit or be fired immediately.
So far no one has taken responsibility.* Why does this matter? Because it reveals how Donald Trump deals with a problem. He hides. So far, by his silence, he has allowed the responsibility to fall upon his wife, as if she herself had stolen Michelle Obama’s ideas and words. Throughout the campaign the most consistent criticism of Mr. Trump by respected journalists and critics is that he frequently lies. To some observers this reveals Mr. Trump's inability to talk about his character or anything private. Paul Manafort, the campaign’s chairman, tried to blame Hillary Clinton. The campaign’s co-chairman claimed a “person helping write it...plucked something in” and there was “an oversight,” and Melania “didn’t have anything to do with it.” Nevertheless both Mr. and Mrs. Trump knew those lines were there, and they were good lines, and they knew they didn’t write them.
According to today’s New York Times investigative report, Mrs. Trump herself, plus her personal advisers, totally revised the original draft by the assigned speechwriters. They obviously turned to other speeches by presidents’ wives. Whether Mrs. Trump herself or her consultant made the “Let’s use Michelle Obama” decision they do not say. To black Americans it is one more example of white people appropriating black accomplishments. So far, no one is being held responsible— which says a lot about this campaign.
Inevitably the problem has expanded. Mrs. Trump’s personal website claims she got her degree in design and architecture at the University in Slovenia. But a recent biography claims that she dropped out in one year. The people of the United States deserve to know who is talking to them; and until they are told, the smell of this controversy and the dishonesty it represents will foul the air. Mr. Trump’s praise that she is “incredible” seems so. It means “not to be believed."
UPDATE, JULY 20, 9:23 p.m.: Wednesday afternoon’s apology by Melania Trump’s friend and speech writer Meredith McIver both half answers the question of “who dunnit” but reveals all the more the shallowness and confusion inside the campaign. We learn that Mrs. Trump “has always liked” Michelle Obama, so much so that she read her favorite Obama passages to Ms. McIver on the phone. The assistant did the obvious thing. She added them to the text. If only she had also added, “As Michelle Obama said in 2008” we would have no plagiarism controversy today and one member of the Trump family would appear broadminded and congenial.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., is America’s literary editor.
* After this blog was written a Trump aide came forward and claimed responsibility for taking remarks from Mrs. Obama's speech.