Correction appended, July 19
As a former speechwriter, I fantasize about how fun it would be to write for Donald Trump. The sheer size of Trump’s platform! His reach! How easy it would be to have impact!
Yet any time the captivating, freewheeling speaker gives prepared remarks, the result is painful: material that is stilted, stiff, and doesn’t reflect his voice. Any decent speechwriter knows the gig is to synthesize great ideas and then recast them to echo the speaker’s cadence and character. And there’s absolutely no excuse for what happened last night. No way to spin it, try as Paul Manafort may. It should be unbelievable, though it’s not.
I learned the craft of speechwriting as a young researcher in President George W. Bush’s speechwriting office. Nobody in the civilian administration worked harder than the men and women who labored sometimes 20 hours a day—writing, but mostly incorporating edits and fact-checking—in the run-up to major addresses.
It makes me feel old to think of how technology has shaped the job of giving the principal—your candidate or public official—a thoroughly researched and fact-checked speech. Online plagiarism detectors—I prefer Grammarly—make it far easier to avoid a debacle like Melania Trump’s. I did put her text into Grammarly’s plagiarism detector and none of the text was detected, which demonstrates the need for staff who are cognizant of history and major addresses.
In the White House, staffers spent hours and hours and hours parsing speech text to detect even the slightest of accidental similarities. I remember a senior speechwriter having a young aide run down a three-word phrase a day or two before the second inaugural address, just to make absolutely sure he hadn’t accidentally lifted it from memory. The best writers tend to be incredibly well read, so unconscious plagiarism inspired from the greats can happen.
That’s why there’s a thorough process to stop any mistakes. There can’t be any accidents when you are playing the game at the very top. The Bush White House had a fact-checking process that annotated every single fact in a speech. I had just joined the office and was reviewing an annotated draft and noticed that for a speech that was to be delivered in Maine; a Kennebunkport reference was annotated to note that the Bush family had a home there for over a hundred years, and that the President had spent significant parts of his childhood there.
That’s a throwaway example of the efforts that go into a stump speech. I have five State of the Union speeches signed by President Bush that I have framed in the wall of my office. Hundreds of Bush staffers have the same signed copies—because that’s how many people worked on any major address. It was all-hands-on-deck inside the speechwriting office a full month before a State of the Union, with staffers running down every last fact about obscure policies that would make it into the most comprehensive (and by nature un-eloquent) address of the year.
If there is one constant in political speechwriting, it’s that 99 percent of speechwriting mistakes are process mistakes, not nefarious cheating. Speechwriting demands a managed process that can still allow for creativity. When the speechwriting process is open to everyone, mistakes are inevitable.
Those mistakes become far more pronounced when you have a team of political hacks eager to cram in their additions to a speech just so that they are part of the process. There has to be leadership from a strong communications chief to stop it. You need speechwriters who are concerned by the art of the speech to have their work checked by a closely managed list of aides who actually have something to contribute to a specific set of remarks. Which brings me back to Trump, and the artist his campaign clearly does not employ.
Since the Trump campaign also has no coherent policy, a speechwriter could literally chart the policy course of the campaign. A talented writer could take the gig and avoid the Trump affiliation. Since speechwriters should by definition work quietly, in the background (a notion disregarded by the Obama administration’s celebrity speechwriter cabal), a ghostwriter who might be ashamed to be publicly affiliated with Trump could stay in the shadows.
It’s clear Trump never bothered to find such a person. How painful that his wife Melania is the first casualty of that oversight.
Trump surrogates parroting “common words and phrases” as a defense must think the American public is truly moronic—yes, the speech included nearly 60 of the same words, arranged exactly the same way. That’s plagiarism—also known as theft. It’s a direct insult to the American public that the Trump campaign is so sloppy and has such shoddy work ethic that they put so little effort into preparing a woman who might be First Lady of our country for the most major public speech she would ever deliver.
My worst nightmare is sending the person I work for on stage with remarks that are less than perfect: a mistake that the press will seize on, or a joke that falls flat. That’s why White House speechwriters paced the halls, reading their words aloud, making sure their final draft was perfect before a first draft ever went to the President.
Someone should have done the same thing for Melania Trump.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the number of words that appeared plagiarized from Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech. It was nearly 60.