Melania Trump found herself atop the Republican Convention’s first-day news coverage when observers spotted passages in her speech that copied lines from Michelle Obama’s parallel 2008 address, in some cases word for word. Even Teen Vogue reported it.
In an election with so much at stake, and with so much that’s controversial in the candidate’s own statements over the past year, why is apparent plagiarism by Mrs. Trump or her writers newsworthy? Her speech means very little to the political process, with the matter of the nomination settled.
Recall that plagiarism charges scuttled Joe Biden’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. Biden had taken to quoting British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, and at some point began neglecting to mention that the lines weren’t his, even though they weren’t just platitudes – they included parts of Kinnock’s life story.
Two plagiarism mini-scandals occurred in 2008. Hillary Clinton’s people caught her primary opponent Barack Obama – one of the political era’s most gifted orators – of pinching rhetoric from Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. That same year, a speechwriter for Canada’s then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper had to resign after stealing parts of an address Australian Prime Minister John Howard had delivered just a few days earlier.
The Washington Post reports that RNC chairman Reince Priebus said he’d “probably” can the guilty Melania Trump speechwriter. (The same report details a few instances where Donald Trump’s campaigns and companies have been caught in plagiarism, but The Donald’s teflon skin is another story).
Why can misappropriating mere words and phrases be a career-damaging and even -ending sin? Words aren’t actions. In these political cases – unlike the wholesale copyright infringement that occurs when entire books are stolen, for example – the crime is, practically speaking, victimless.
The answer is credibility. Plagiarism is a kind of dishonesty. If we can’t trust that what you say reflects your own thoughts and opinions, how can we give credence to anything you’re about? Hillary Clinton has compounded the troubles raised by her use of a private email server by lying about it. Dishonesty is dishonesty, whether it’s an untruth or an uncredited crib. Melania Trump’s sin reflects poorly, not so much on her husband, but on the Republican endeavor that’s so reluctantly gotten behind him. It makes everyone involved look a little sleazy.
To paraphrase an old campaign slogan of the other famous Clinton: “It’s credibility, stupid.”