Peter Slevin, a former Post national correspondent, is an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and the author of “Michelle Obama: A Life.”
Much was riding on Michelle Obama’s words and delivery when she stepped onto a Denver stage in August 2008 to address delegates on the first night of the Democratic National Convention. She aimed to reassure a raft of voters wary of a Barack Obama presidency and skeptical about her own values.
Six months earlier, she had been vilified in some quarters for saying she was “really proud” of the United States for the first time in her adult life. On the eve of the convention, only 38 percent of respondents to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll viewed her favorably. “It’s scary,” an undecided voter mused to a Florida reporter. “To think she’s going to be whispering in the president’s ear when he’s in bed.”
Obama carefully chose her words and rehearsed every phrase — including the ones that Melania Trump’s speechwriter apologized Wednesday for borrowing — until she nearly knew them by heart. Working closely with her staff, Obama filled the speech with personal details designed to illuminate what she called her “improbable journey” while offering a vivid take on working-class Americans and her desire for a fairer, more tolerant society.
One of the many ironies of the plagiarism episode, beyond the curious decision to purloin the words of a first lady routinely demonized by Republicans, is the way that Trump’s speech had a few of the phrases, but none of the sentiment or the specifics delivered by Obama.
The sentence fragments borrowed by the Trump campaign and rendered anodyne by Melania Trump were central to Michelle Obama’s narrative. She spoke of her blue-collar parents, including her father, afflicted by multiple sclerosis, struggling to walk with two canes, rarely missing a shift at the Chicago water plant. She told of Barack Obama’s working-class grandparents and his mother’s time as a single parent.
It was all about the lessons their elders taught them — and how the first African American couple to reach the cusp of the presidency could be trusted.
“Barack and I,” she told the delegates, “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, that 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.”
The Trump speechwriter left out that last part, about how dignity and respect should rule even when you don’t know or agree. But the rest, it was all there. Among the revealing passages not borrowed was Obama’s homage to “men and women gathered in churches and union halls” and people who “stood up and marched and risked everything they had, refusing to settle.” Also missing was Obama’s pointed conviction, particularly apt amid the apocalyptic speechmaking in Cleveland on Monday night, that it was time that voters “listened to our hopes, instead of our fears.”
Political speechmaking is ultimately political theater, and the Obamas have always understood the power of personal narratives. Back in 2004, when Barack Obama was an Illinois state senator, he told Oprah Winfrey in an interview, “Policy has to be guided by facts, but to move people, you have to tell stories.”
None of the anecdotes in Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech would prove more central than her carefully crafted recollection of a trip they made to a church basement on the South Side of Chicago in the late 1980s. Still in law school, Barack Obama was addressing working-class folks, she said. “Parents living paycheck to paycheck; grandparents trying to get by on a fixed income; men frustrated that they couldn’t support their families after their jobs disappeared.”
In that basement room, she told the delegates, Barack Obama “talked about ‘the world as it is’ and ‘the world as it should be.’ And he said that, all too often, we accept the distance between the two and we settle for the world as it is, even when it doesn’t reflect our values and aspirations.”
She described an obligation to fight for that better world and called it “the thread that runs through my journey and Barack’s journey.” By the time she finished, to raucous cheers and widespread praise from the punditocracy, she had spoken of ending the Iraq War and delivering health care, an equitable economy and a quality education to all Americans.
After months of rough treatment that wounded her confidence and caused her to fear that she was damaging Barack Obama’s chances, the convention speech represented her resurrection. Her favorability numbers in the campaign’s tracking poll jumped 18 percent overnight and never came down.