You know that speech by Melania Trump that she’s being accused of plagiarizing from Michelle Obama?
Well, it turns out that by that definition of “plagiarism,” Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech — the one Ms. Trump is accused of copying — was itself plagiarized.
In other words, the words, phrases, and ideas Ms. Trump is accused of copying from Mrs. Obama are things that had themselves occurred in essentially the same form in other recent political speeches. Most of them were previously taken by Mrs. Obama, or by her speechwriters, from Bill Clinton. But one of them even came from a Republican, Senator Robert Dole.
Let’s start with the phrase that the New York Times, in its lead front-page news article, places at the heart of its plagiarism case:
Jon Favreau, a former chief speechwriter to President Obama, was home on his couch half-following Ms. Trump’s speech on TV while catching up on work Monday night. At first, he was skeptical of the criticism.
“Everyone says, ‘You work hard,’” Mr. Favreau said, reciting a line from the speech. “Political speeches are filled with clichés that are impossible to avoid.” But when he got to Ms. Trump saying, “Your word is your bond,” Mr. Favreau recalled, he stopped short.
“I remember Michelle saying, ‘Your word is your bond,’ and thinking I’ve never heard of someone saying that in politics,” Mr. Favreau said. “That was when I knew it might have been copied.”
Never before heard in politics? Here was Dole, the 1996 Republican candidate for president, in his June 12, 1996 Farewell Remarks in the U.S. Senate: “’I’ve learned one other thing that we’ve all learned in this chamber and this town, your word is your bond.” If Ms. Trump is a plagiarist for copying that from Michelle Obama, then Michelle Obama is a plagiarist for copying it from Mr. Dole.
What about the other long strings of words that Ms. Trump is accused of copying from Michelle Obama? Mrs. Obama — or her speechwriters — sure look like they lifted those words, too. Or else Mrs. Obama and her speechwriters were subject to the same amazing coincidence that Mrs. Trump and her speechwriters were.
Ms. Trump’s words — “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” — are seen as duplicative of Mrs. Obama’s — “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.”
Here are Bill Clinton’s remarks at an August 2, 1999 youth anti-drug event: “Together, we can give every single child in this country a chance to grow up in a world where the only limits are the outlines of their hopes and dreams.” The “child[ren]…only limit…dream” formulation is identical in all three speeches.
Another phrase Ms. Trump is accused of copying from Michelle Obama is the formulation, that, as Ms. Trump put it, “you treat people with respect.” Michelle Obama had said, “you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them.” But “dignity and respect” was a Bill Clinton catchphrase. Here he is on July 24, 1999, in remarks at a Democratic National Committee luncheon in Aspen: “we have nothing to fear from lawabiding citizens who are different from ourselves, as long as we treat them with dignity and respect, whatever their differences are.”
Another formulation Ms. Trump is accused of copying from Mrs. Obama is Ms. Trump’s call to “pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow.” That is said to imitate Mrs. Obama’s call to “pass them on to the next generation.” But the generational passing is a common trope in political rhetoric, from Kennedy’s inaugural “torch has been passed to a new generation” to a speech by President Reagan in 1988 about National Parks that spoke about how Americans must “pass them on to the next generation” — the identical seven word string that appeared in Michelle Obama’s convention speech.
Perhaps the most brazen plagiarism seems to be Ms. Trump’s copying a description of her parents from Mrs. Obama’s description of her mother. Can’t a person come up with her own original praise of her own parents? And since the formulation — in Mrs. Obama’s phrase, “her integrity, her compassion and her intelligence”; in Ms. Trump’s, “their integrity, compassion, and intelligence” — includes the word “integrity,” you have the truly scandalous and ironic spectacle of a politician’s wife (or her speechwriter) copying the word integrity.
Yet if Ms. Trump couldn’t, or wouldn’t, come up with original words to praise her parents, the evidence indicates that Mrs. Obama couldn’t come up with original words to praise her own mother, either. In fact, the intelligence and compassion pairing (if not the integrity) appears to have been borrowed, ironically enough, from Bill Clinton and his team’s description of Hillary Clinton, who had challenged Michelle Obama’s husband Barack for the nomination in 2008.
On October 22, 2000, President Bill Clinton said about Hillary, who was then running for Senate: “I’ve never known anybody that had the same combination of intelligence and compassion.” A July 17, 2007 press release from Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign had a mayor claiming, “I am a firm believer that Senator Clinton’s experience, intelligence and compassion will serve as galvanizing forces.” A September 15, 2007 Clinton press release had General Wesley Clark saying, “we deserve a leader who draws on wisdom, compassion, intelligence and moral courage — in short, we need Hillary Clinton.” A December 3, 2007 Clinton campaign press release had the president of the Southern Nevada Stonewall Democrats saying about Hillary, “I’ve admired her intelligence and compassion.”
Here’s a lesson in intelligence and compassion to pass on to the next generation: If you are going to accuse someone of copying something, make sure that thing wasn’t copied to begin with.
Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of JFK, Conservative.