“Boy, that escalated quickly.” Just to let you know, those opening four words were originally spoken by Will Farrell’s character in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. We offer this official citation because we don’t want to be accused of plagiarism.
Plagiarism is “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.” Discussion on this topic took over Monday night as the Republican National Convention concluded its first day, when two paragraphs of potential First Lady Melania Trump’s speech were identified as having been previously orated in 2008… by current First Lady Michelle Obama.
This is not the first accusation of plagiarism in politics, even in recent history. In 2008, Hillary Clinton was accused to plagiarizing U.S. Sen. John Edwards during her first presidential campaign. In 2007, President Obama shared speechwriters with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, and neglected to give Patrick credit for some of his original rhetoric on occasion. In 2014, U.S. Senate candidate John Walsh of Montana bowed out of the race when it was discovered that he had plagiarized portions of his master’s degree term papers at the U.S. Army War College. Most famously, in 1988, Vice President Joe Biden (then a much younger senator) plagiarized British Labour Party leader Neal Kinnock (not just his words, but his biographical details) during his ill-fated presidential campaign. All of these received much media play, and in the current world of Twitter, probably would have received infinitely more attention.
But the curious case of Melania Trump blew up this week, for three primary reasons that make it unique and different from the previous examples.
First, the source. Donald Trump and the GOP have been targeting Democrats and President Barack Obama for some time, so Melania Trump stealing words from the current FLOTUS and claiming it as her own came off as a stunning public relations blow. Taking words from the “political enemy” and using them for your own purposes reflects very poorly — especially when the lifted phrases dealt with themes like “hard work” and “integrity.”
Second, the vetting process. Professional political campaigns have at their disposal a number of search tools that can be used to ensure plagiarism doesn’t happen. Whether a simple Google search or using a more sophisticated program like Turnitin, which a number of area schools use to check student writing, the Trump campaign had many options at its disposal, but chose not to do the extra work when introducing Mrs. Trump on the national stage.
Third, crisis management. Team Trump fared poorly here, first denying the plagiarism, then refusing to accept any blame for it and blaming the rival Clinton campaign, then determining that two official speechwriters had sent Melania Trump a draft which she rewrote herself. Nearly 36 hours after the speech, an in-house Trump Organization staff writer named Meredith McIver claimed to have made the error, adding that Melania Trump has a deep appreciation of Michelle Obama and reviewed some passages from her 2008 speech, which set up the error that took away from what should have been a wonderful night for Mrs. Trump.
Given the many other topics of vital importance to Americans, was plagiarism the most important on which to focus? Probably not. But it reinforced dominant themes of the Trump campaign, which has shied away from using experienced political experts and established political routines, instead playing on instinct.
If any good has come out of the fiasco, it’s that high school and middle school English teachers have a new and modern example of how to teach students the dangers of plagiarism.