The power of words (even when they aren’t your own)

Soon after the nation watched Melania Trump deliver her speech on Monday at the Republican National Convention, some viewers took to Twitter to post that portions of her remarks appeared to be identical to parts of Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech. Amid accusations of plagiarism against Trump, the speechwriter, Meredith McIver, released a statement on Wednesday, acknowledging that Trump had read parts of the first lady’s 2008 speech to McIver and that she had mistakenly left some of it in her final draft.

We asked former speechwriter Greg Goodale, associate professor in communication studies and director of the Integrated Student Learning Experience, about the line between borrowing and cribbing someone else’s words and whether Trump crossed that line.


How does political speechwriting differ from other forms of writing?

I’ll preface this with a note that “political speechwriting” has many objectives that are context-dependent. When President Obama spoke in Dallas last week, for example, that was a political speech intended to heal an entire nation.

Melania Trump’s speech was intended for two audiences: the base, in this case composed of Republican National Convention delegates, and a wider audience of hard core Republicans, politicos, people who don’t have cable, and a few undecided voters. Some voters who watched the speech, and then its segments on the news the next day, are still undecided given the high levels of distrust that Americans have for both major party candidates.

So, Mrs. Trump’s objectives were  to bring the Republican Party together by sounding out key themes that are shared by the party and by her husband and to humanize Donald Trump for undecided voters who may have misgivings about his temperament.

Are there varying degrees of plagiarism or does it depend on the type of writing?

There are varying degrees of plagiarism. Most people who understand plagiarism laughed at one of the Trump campaign’s early defenses of Mrs. Trump’s plagiarism: “It was only 7 percent of the speech.”

The percentage of plagiarism is not a matter of degree. If you’ve plagiarized 1 percent, you’ve still plagiarized. That said, Donald Trump Jr. was accused of plagiarism following his speech the second night of the convention, but it turns out his speechwriter, Frank Buckley, used a passage from something that he, Frank Buckley, had written a few months ago.

Similarly, eight years ago, President Obama was caught taking lines from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. Both men shared the same message guru, David Axelrod. Was it plagiarism then? Kind of.

The fact is that any speech we may listen to or read about was probably written by someone other than the person who gave the speech. Given that the speaker almost never attributes the speech to his or her speechwriter, we might be able to say that major political speeches are plagiarized.

Americans, by-and-large, know that political office-holders and political candidates for high office employ speechwriters. So in these cases, it’s not really plagiarism. It’s speech-making with a wink. When it comes to speeches given by corporate CEOs or nonprofit heads, then speech-making gets a little trickier. Are they required to first disclose that they did not write the speech? Do audiences want to know or do we prefer the illusion that the president of this, that, and the other thing write their own speeches?

Using other people’s quotations or remarks is very common in speeches. But where is the line between augmenting the speech’s theme with other people’s turns of phrase and plagiarism?

The line is a little murky. The speech fragment that then-Sen. Obama was accused of taking from Patrick, for example, employed a series of unattributed quotes. In defense of accusations that his words were “just rhetoric” during the 2006 campaign, Patrick responded: “‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’—just words. Just words. ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’—just words. ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’—just words. ‘I have a dream’—just words.”

The fact is that any speech we may listen to or read about was probably written by someone other than the person who gave the speech. Given that the speaker almost never attributes the speech to his or her speechwriter, we might be able to say that major political speeches are plagiarized.”
—Greg Goodale

Those phrases are so well-known to Americans they need not be attributed in a case when the words themselves are being used to demonstrate the power of words.

The Obama-Patrick episode and Mrs. Trump’s speech are reminders that words really are powerful.

Based on the evidence provided, do you believe Trump plagiarized?

If you are using words spoken or written by another that are not indelibly registered in the minds of almost every member of your audience, you should attribute the words to those who first spoke or penned them, whether you are the speechwriter or the speech-maker.

Mrs. Trump gave a speech written for her by a speechwriter. Americans should know that political figures like Mrs. Trump have speechwriters and are reading words that the speaker did not write. So the blame for plagiarism is fairly attributed to both speech-maker and speechwriter. This case is a little different though because Mrs. Trump informed a nationwide audience before the speech on Monday that she had written the speech herself with a little help from others. That means she owns the speech, which in turn means that she either lied or plagiarized.

Given that Donald Trump’s ghostwriter, Meredith McIver, has come forward to admit that she was responsible for that rather mundane part of the speech, it would seem, then, that Mrs. Trump plagiarized and probably lied. Given that Americans seem to have a high tolerance for political dishonesty, it would seem that plagiarism carries the heavier penalty.