In the wake of the media maelstrom over Melania Trump's lifting of several passages from a speech Michelle Obama gave in 2008, I reached out to Michael Gerson, the chief speechwriter for George W. Bush. My goal in talking to Gerson, who is now a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post, was to get a better understanding of how something like this could happen, who should be blamed and what it said about the broader Trump campaign. Our conversation, conducted via email and edited only for grammar, is below.
FIX: Explain how the vetting process for a George W. speech might go. How many people look at it? How many times is the language checked?
Gerson: The vetting process in a presidential campaign is a bit looser than in the White House, where the staffing process includes maybe 15 sets of eyes on every speech and the speechwriting office produces a version of the speech with every factual claim footnoted.
The decision-making team in a presidential campaign is typically much smaller. And a lot of the pressure to vet is placed on speechwriting staff. The candidate and campaign inner circle will give close attention to key speeches, but are generally focused on big-picture content.
How often are mistakes like this made? Assuming you look at lots of speeches from the past while writing any speech for the present? And how do you avoid things like this happening?
Presidential candidates often are (and should be) inspired by the great rhetoric of the past. And the themes of American politics are consistent over time. The problem comes in the close and distinctive use of sentences and paragraphs. At this point, inspiration becomes dependence. It generally falls to the speechwriter (or speechwriting staff) in a campaign to guard against this type of unacceptable dependence.
Who, ultimately, is to blame for plagiarism like this? The candidate? The campaign manager? The speechwriter? The spouse?
This was a staff failure, indicating a weak campaign apparatus.
Do you remember anything like this happening at a convention before? Or at a big national news event?
There have been a few cases (such as during Joe Biden’s first run for president) where rhetorical dependence was politically damaging. But I imagine that people will cut a candidate’s wife more slack.
Finish this sentence: “An error like the one Melania Trump committed last night tells us _____________ about the campaign.” Now, explain.
An error like the one Melania Trump committed last night tells us that the Trump campaign lacks seriousness and structure, which is also demonstrated by its divisive style, weak ground game and poor fundraising numbers.