Melania Trump’s speech lay towards the end of a long evening of the Republican National Convention’s TV broadcast like the pot of gold at the end of—well, not a rainbow. Perhaps a minefield.
The evening had been, prior to the entrance of the presumptive nominee’s wife, closely tied to themes of national security, and the manner by which President Obama and Hillary Clinton had eroded it. The co-authors of the Benghazi book 13 Hours seemed to go well past their allotted time in narrating the events of that night in close detail, while others whose names the average viewer might not have known excoriated the Democratic Party for allowing their family members to die in Benghazi, or along the border. The one deeply recognizable figure, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, put on a strange and uncomfortable display of ire, waving his hands into camera in a manner seemingly meant to invite the creation of memes.
Even the most devoted believer in Trump’s cause might have craved relief from a litany of misery (the stories) and discomfort (their manner of telling). And so it was that the Trump campaign, purposefully or not, seemed to discover again that Melania is, if anything, an underutilized asset.
The candidate’s wife spoke haltingly, seemingly not in complete command of her material—news networks had emphasized the weeks it had taken Melania to craft the speech along with speechwriters, and the speech’s provenance quickly came to be questioned, given its glaring similarities to Michelle Obama’s Democratic National Convention address in 2008. And yet in the moment her hesitance to take the stage acted in effective counterpoint to the evening’s brash tone. It was a conscious downshift in energy for a broadcast whose wild vigor stopped short of becoming permanently alienating for the uninitiated.
Melania did all the things a First Lady is “supposed” to do—and then some. She gracefully glossed over the issue of various Republican dignitaries skipping the ceremony by taking time to shout out Bob Dole in the audience. She addressed her husband’s strengths, telling the audience how strong and decisive Trump would be as president. She made up for his deficiencies, asking the audience to thank all of Trump’s primary opponents, something that Trump himself will be unlikely to do in his acceptance speech Thursday. And her outright acknowledgments of the oddities of Trump’s campaign came in the form of smoothly loving jibes: “It would not be a Trump contest without excitement and drama,” she at one point deeply understated.
For all that she was willing to apparently borrow her words, Melania is deeply unlike Michelle Obama, the woman who’d be her predecessor if Trump wins—to say nothing of the former First Lady against whom Trump is presently running. Indeed, there isn’t a First Lady in the televisual age quite so reticent as Mrs. Trump, both in terms of her unavailability relative to press and public interest and in terms of just how shaky she seemed, at first, in front of the microphone. But her speech built in confidence throughout, capitalizing as it was on the vacuum of optimism in the rest of the evening’s proceedings. Even candidate Trump, introducing his wife for whatever reason (loyalty? a confidence boost for her? a refusal to let a night go by in Cleveland without his touching the stage?) knew well enough to keep things brief and positive, briefly bringing his wife on and saving the rhetoric for another night.
Melania Trump’s speech was, on its own terms, a wild success in the moment, making it all the more ironic that its impact was negated by charges of plagiarism (that is, if any of Trump’s voters care). Those terms include the introduction of a candidate’s wife to a public who’d never met her before and now see an individual rising above an odd circumstance and doing her best, as well as the terms of engagement of a night of broadcast TV otherwise consumed by relitigating past trauma in incredibly heated tones.
Melania was the only tonic in a glass full of bitters; she could never speak again throughout the campaign, and she’d be fondly remembered for putting a face on the Trump candidacy that was both relatively TV-ready and compellingly not so. Everyone onstage made clear that they believed being there was part of their duty—to elect Trump, to defeat Clinton—but only Melania, gutting out congratulations to vanquished Senators and testimonials to her husband, sold it.