It is expected, and more so than normal because it is Hillary Clinton running for president, that no lie will be left unsaid in attacking Donald Trump. After all, when you’ve been publically denounced as–though not prosecuted as–a liar and traitor by the Director of the FBI, what restraints need you recognize? What charge is outside your ethical boundaries? Perhaps the largest Clintonian round thus far fired in the electoral war is that Melania Trump, Donald Trump’s wife, plagiarized a paragraph–or two–of her Republican Convention speech. Steve Schale, a Florida Democrat political operative who worked the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns, is representative of the tactic:
I’ve written a fair number of speeches in my career. Anyone worth their salt who has written understands the intentional nature of speechwriting — particularly a speech designed to be delivered to a major audience. Every word, every pause, and every transition is considered. You play it out in your head — you have the principal practice it. Nothing is unintentional. Nothing. Ever.
Whoever wrote Melania Trump’s speech knew what they were doing – they were sabotaging the moment. They wrote a speech that they knew cribbed not only from Michelle Obama, but also from Rick Astley — the latter of which is the dead giveaway. And honeslty if they didn’t do it as intentional sabotage, then the Trump campaign is a bigger goat show than we all thought.
Hmmm. Donald Trump and his campaign have certainly made a variety of unforced mistakes, particularly in communications, but stealing two paragraphs from, of all sources, Michelle Obama’s convention speech? And why only two paragraphs? Still, to be noticeable, the paragraphs must be virtually word for word, or so one would think.
Let use, therefore, gentle readers, examine this supposed plagiarism using not only common sense, but my finely honed English teacher plagiarism detection powers. This sort of thing is, after all, what I do day in and day out. See? English teachers are good for something other than correcting other people’s grammar! People has provided both two-paragraph excerpts:
And Barack and I were raised with so many of the same 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, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them.
And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generation. 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.
From a young age 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 life.
That is a lesson that I continue to pass along to our son, and we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow. 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.
Let’s analyze them, sentence for sentence. I’ll include only the common words in each sentence:
Paragraph 1, Sentence 1: values that you work hard for what you want in life
that your word is your bond and you do what you say
you treat people
MO P1: one sentence, 61 words.
MT P1: two sentences, 55 words.
Notice that the common words are not identical in sentence structure, nor are they organized with the same punctuation. One of the most telling indicators of copying is the texts share not only identical wording, but identical or near identical sentence structure and punctuation. The longer each identical or near-identical bit of text, the more likely plagiarism took place. However, it’s important to keep in mind that when addressing the same topics, for the same purposes, common words, phrases, or references are to be expected.
Paragraph 2, Sentence 1: No significant identical words.
While both sentences generally speak of values or lessons to pass to future generations, there are no sign of direct copying.
Paragraph 2, Sentence 2: Because we want our children
in this nation
to know that the only limit to
your achievements is
of your dreams
your willingness to work for them
MO P2: two sentences, 57 words.
MT P2: two sentences, 57 words.
Both second paragraphs are quite similar in message, less so in structure.
In a case like this, I would speak with both students, and probably find that they worked together and shared ideas, but made an attempt to express them in their own words. I would normally do no more than caution them about how to write about the same things for the same purpose while retaining more individuality in expression. We are, however, dealing with political speeches, prepared for each speaker by speechwriters.
Have you noticed, gentle readers, that the speeches of politicians are constructed in similar ways? How they tend to use the same ideas and words?
A not insignificant portion of these apparent similarities can be reasonably explained by the way native speakers of a given language tend to express themselves on common topics. Notice that there are no uncommon words or phrases such that for two people to use them, one must have been copying the other. For example, if author A writes: “This was the dog about which I spoke,” one would expect most people to express the same information as “ That’s the dog I was talking about.” It would be very unlikely for others to express the thought exactly as author A did.
Notice too that these are apparently the only commonalities out of two much longer speeches, both given for the same purpose to the same kinds of audiences, both touching on common, often spoken and written themes. These are 11 interrupted words and phrases–not complete sentences–out of speeches of thousands of words. There is no dramatic, uniquely worded phrase or sentence–something so good as to cause others to want to use it–that unquestionably tells the tale.
That said, the similarities certainly seem at least mildly suspicious, and in this campaign, with a Clinton war machine armed, cocked and locked and analyzing every word any of their enemies has to say or write, the Trump campaign cannot afford to be the least bit careless. Why would they want to follow Hillary’s lead? How long did it take Clintonites to make the plagiarism charge? Minute? Hours? The Media will be only too glad to turn every Trump molehill into Mt. Everest, and to bury every Clintonian mountain in the Marianas Trench.
In Melania Trump, the Clintonistas recognize a real, dangerous threat. She is not only tall, striking, beautiful, glamorous and smart–she speaks five languages–but her obvious, unstrained pride in America, her relative youth, her natural friendliness and grace, make Hillary look like the dowdy, angry, America-hating harridan she is. The Trump campaign would be wise–if they have not already done so–to have a meaningful chat with the people responsible for writing Melania’s speech. It should go without saying that anything anyone representing the Trump campaign says must be carefully vetted. Does anyone really need to say: “whatever you do, don’t use anything from the speeches of people that would like to see us, if not actually, then at least figuratively, dead?”
Even if one thinks this blatant plagiarism, is Melania Trump a plagiarist? Of course not. She didn’t write the speech, and while she doubtless read it before speaking, how could she possibly have recognized several disjointed words and phrases, and such common words and phrases, as lifted from any prior political speech? She has never lived in those circles. The accusation could, however, be an attempt to provoke an intemperate response from Donald Trump.
Sabotage? Highly unlikely. Inattention to detail? More likely. Plagiarism? If so, it’s hardly worthy of the description, and I would do no more than chat with those involved about avoiding even the appearance of such in the future. Perhaps, just perhaps, this needs to be said to Trump speechwriters? If so, you’re welcome Mr. Trump. No charge. Please consider this an in-kind campaign contribution.
UPDATE, 072016, 2220 CST: Meredith McIver, who actually wrote the speech delivered by Melania Trump, has provided a reasonable, and convincing, explanation, available here.