Melania Trump’s political plagiarism scandal is not the first, and not the last
Did Melania Trump really plagiarize Michelle Obamas 2008 Democratic convention speech?
By Bonnie K. Goodman
It was supposed to be presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump’s wife, Melania’s big campaign debut, instead, it descended into controversy, as does everything in the Trump campaign. On Monday evening, July 18, 2016, Melania Trump gave the keynote address on the first night of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. Introduced by her husband, Melania’s job was to humanize Trump, who has been caricatured for much of his career and the campaign. Instead, her big moment was overshadowed by the similarities of two paragraphs with First Lady Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic Convention speech and accusations of plagiarism.
Both Melania and Michelle’s passages in their speeches emphasized family values imbued by their parents and passing them to the next generation. The themes were similar and also common for the type of convention speech. Although the words were similar, the sentences were for the most part different with some similar points, and certain keywords, possibly invoking the paraphrasing or copying for verbatim debate. Only one phrase was copied verbatim, “your dreams and your willingness to work for them.” Plagiarism is described as “The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.”
According to Harvard University‘s Faculty of Arts and Science “In academic writing, it is considered plagiarism to draw any idea or any language from someone else without adequately crediting that source in your paper. It doesn’t matter whether the source is a published author, another student, a Web site without clear authorship, a Web site that sells academic papers, or any other person: Taking credit for anyone else’s work is stealing, and it is unacceptable in all academic situations, whether you do it intentionally or by accident.” Harvard also lists different types of plagiarism, which include” “verbatim, mosaic, inadequate paraphrasing, uncited paraphrase, uncited quotations.” The only exception according to Harvard is “common knowledge.”
Melania’s speech excerpt read:
“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 me to show the values and morals in my daily life. That is the 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.”
To compare here is Michelle’s speech from 2008:
“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.”
Almost immediately, after Melania delivered her speech, a journalist specializing in interior design and not politics, Jarrett Hill called Melania out on Twitter accusing her of plagiarism. In his tweet, Hill wrote, “Melania must’ve liked Michelle Obama’s 2008 Convention speech since she plagiarized it.” Hill, who is African-American, has a history of Trump bashing and is a fan of the Obamas, already, had a biased view of the situation. Still, the news media picked up on the story, and it swept through a media who already negatively bashes Trump and his rhetoric and policy positions. Melania’s similar words just was another chance for criticism.
Just as quickly Trump’s campaign denied the accusation. Senior communications adviser Jason Miller issued a statement after the accusations, which read, “In writing her beautiful speech, Melania’s team of writers took notes on her life’s inspirations, and in some instances included fragments that reflected her own thinking. Melania’s immigrant experience and love for America shone through in her speech, which made it such a success.”
According to the campaign, chairman Paul Manafort appearing on CNN’s “New Day” telling Chris Cuomo that the allegation is “just really absurd.” Manafort dismissed the claims, saying, “To think that she would do something like that knowing how scrutinized her speech was going to be last night is just really absurd.” Continuing Manafort explained, “There’s no cribbing of Michelle Obama’s speech. These were common words and values. She cares about her family. To think that she’d be cribbing Michelle Obama’s words is crazy.”
Manafort then, in turn, blamed presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Trump campaign manager made his accusation, saying, “This is once again an example of when a woman threatens Hillary Clinton, she seeks out to demean her and take her down. It’s not going to work.”
According to a Republican close to the situation, recounted the process involved in crafting Melania’s speech. According to the “operative”, several aides edited the speech and gave suggestions to Melania. Manafort approved the speech in the end. The recount contradicts the account from Trump’s wife who claims to have a written the speech herself. Melania revealed to to NBC‘s Matt Lauer, “I read once over it, that’s all, because I wrote it … with (as) little help as possible.” Melania is not facing the brunt of the backlash but rather Trump’s speechwriters and even Manafort, although no one has been fired for the error.
President Obama’s former speechwriter, Jon Favreau, who was partly responsible for Michelle Obama’s speech, did not seem offended or upset by the possibility of plagiarism. After the accusations had started flying, Favreau tweeted and joked, “(To be honest), I was more offended by just about every other speech than Melania’s plagiarized paragraphs.”
The problem is writers, and academics and even students get away with plagiarism all the time. With the vast amount of information on the internet, many believe that it is fair game, especially if it is a blog or non-traditional source. Academics who plagiarize believe they will not be caught because they are taking ideas from someone they deem less educated and less well known. More often than not if someone does not bring the plagiarized passages up the one, who plagiarizes usually gets away with it.
As a writer, I have experienced being plagiarized, from a woman posting an entire article of mine that was an excerpt from my thesis taken verbatim without any credit, with listing it as her own. To a former professor who for years continually liberally borrows my ideas, themes from my articles for his, even phrases but manages to get away with it because they have the doctorate and the professorship although according to Harvard’s definitions what they have done is considered plagiarism.
Just last week in the UK’s the Guardian Higher Education section a writer on the Academic Anonymous blog recounted finding a creative writing Ph.D. dissertation with 100 passages plagiarized verbatim. When the academic discovered the plagiarism reported it to the dissertation advisor at the British university, the professor protected their student by ensuring copies of the dissertation were removed from the university’s library and made unavailable in any other form to the public. Only a year later was the thesis put back on the shelves, but the Ph.D. graduate was never stripped of their degree or even reprimanded for the extensive and blatant plagiarism, in the most important capstone project of their university education.
Melania Trump’s plagiarism case is hardly the first involving politicians that rocked the political world. The most famous case is Vice President Joe Biden who in 1987, had to withdraw from the 1988 Democratic presidential race after it was discovered that he plagiarized a speech with passages from former Democratic candidates Hubert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy, and former President John F. Kennedy. Other notable political plagiarism scandals include Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Montana Senator John Walsh, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, and even President Barack Obama.
In 2007, then Democratic candidate Obama lifted some passages from then-Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s lines from a 2006 speech when he delivered a speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Wisconsin. Rival Hillary Clinton’s campaign revealed what Obama did. Obama dismissed it all as nothing much saying, “Deval and I do trade ideas all the time, and you know he’s occasionally used lines of mine. I would add I’ve noticed on occasion Sen. Clinton has used words of mine as well. As I said before, I really don’t think this is too big of a deal.”
Donald McCabe, a retired business professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, conducted a survey in 2010 and determined a prevalence of cheating and plagiarism among college undergraduate and graduate students.
The following are the results of his survey:
- 36% of undergraduates and 24% of graduate students admit to “paraphrasing/copying few sentences from Internet source without footnoting it.”
- 38% of undergraduates and 25% of graduate students admit to “paraphrasing/copying few sentences from written source without footnoting it.”
- 14% of undergraduates and 7% of graduate students admit to “fabricating/falsifying a bibliography.”
- 7% of undergraduates 4% of graduate students and admit to copying materials “almost word for word from a written source without citation.”
- 7% of undergraduates and 3% of graduate students admit to “turning in work done by another.” Finally, 3% of undergraduates and 2% of graduate students admit to “obtaining a paper from term paper mill.”
Another survey conducted in 2011 by the Pew Research Center and The Chronicle of Higher Education asked college presidents about plagiarism and cheating at their respective colleges among students. Of the 1,055 presidents asked, 55 percent said that there had been an increase in plagiarism in the ten preceding years, and they predominately, 89 percent, blamed the internet for rampant cheating.
In this case, Melania or most precisely her speechwriters used a common theme for conventions and wives’ of the running mates but made the mistake of staying too closely to a recent and famous speech from a beloved first lady. Viewed by millions, with enough people opposed to Trump, Melania’s first major foray was bound to be scrutinized.
The moment caught the press the Trump campaign wanted but not for the reasons they wanted. Trump, however, will survive the plagiarism scandal as the world can be forgiving just ask historian Doris Goodwin Kearns and even Joe Biden and Barack Obama, who plagiarized speeches once and still ended becoming a popular vice president and president.