Melania Trump had a thankless job.
She appeared at the podium of the RNC convention on Monday night clearly tasked with showing the kinder, gentler side of her husband. No mean feat.
She followed on the heels of former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani who had already whipped the crowd into a rabid frenzy over “Islamic extremist terrorists.”
She managed to sound both over-rehearsed—wooden—and under-rehearsed—neglecting to vary her tempo, volume, enthusiasm.
But mostly, she failed because she or her speech writers—and we can assume the latter based on her stumbling read of a text that obviously ran counter to her natural Slovenian cadence—forgot to say anything.
Or maybe she did. But I can’t remember it. Minutes after the speech was done, it was gone from my head.
If she were one of my students in the grad writing program where I sometimes teach, I would have given her a C-minus. (I am a generous grader.) But I would have gone on to rake her over the coals in the group workshop session for neglecting the single most important element of good story telling: show, don’t tell.
For example, let me show you what I mean because if I just tell you “the speech was bad” you remain un-persuaded, you can’t visualize and don’t buy it.
Speaking to convention-goers about her husband, Melania Trump said: “He is tough when he has to be but he is also kind and fair and caring. This kindness is not always noted, but it is there for all to see. That is one reason I fell in love with him to begin with.”
She also told us he was “loyal,” and has “a deep and unbounding determination and never-give-up attitude.”
Referring to Trump’s fathering, she said, “His children have been cared for and mentored to the extent that even his adversaries admit they are an amazing testament to who he is as a man and a father. There is a great deal of love in the Trump family. That is our bond, and that is our strength.”
The words, without examples, are meaningless. What does “loyal” mean? What does “kind” or “caring” mean? What does “unbounding determination” mean? (Is “unbounding” even a word? I get the red squiggle from spell check.)
Melania lapsed into cliched generalities, words so over-used they have lost their meaning. What does “kind” mean without an example of “kind” to make it click into our brain as image—the boy who bent to tie his little sister’s shoe, the woman who babysat her grandchild so her daughter could finish college, the volunteer who has coached little league for 17 years.
Compare Melania Trump’s speech to Michelle Obama’s 2012 address, which was laced with telling details. She said: “You see, even though back then Barack was a Senator and a presidential candidate...to me, he was still the guy who'd picked me up for our dates in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by through a hole in the passenger side door...He was the guy whose proudest possession was a coffee table he'd found in a dumpster, and whose only pair of decent shoes was half a size too small.”
She similarly described her upbringing: “My father was a pump operator at the city water plant, and he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis when my brother and I were young.
And even as a kid, I knew there were plenty of days when he was in pain...I knew there were plenty of mornings when it was a struggle for him to simply get out of bed…And when he returned home after a long day's work, my brother and I would stand at the top of the stairs to our little apartment, patiently waiting to greet him...watching as he reached down to lift one leg, and then the other, to slowly climb his way into our arms.” She says he never missed a day of work.
Then there is the whole feminist angle. “Out of 10, how would you rank this speech in terms of women and feminism?” a colleague asked me as we left the convention after Melania’s address.
“I’d give her a three,” I said. (I am a generous grader.)
And her job is a brutal one. She gets three points just for going up on a stage in front of thousands and delivering a speech when English is her second language. And for carrying on, even when it was clear about halfway through that things were not going all that well for her. Her three points come from sympathy; I felt bad for her. “Bless her heart,” as they say down south, cushioning harsh critique (idiot!) with a hint of empathy (poor little idiot doesn’t know any better!).
Being a candidate’s wife is all about playing a supportive, diminished role where all of the woman’s personality, ambition, and smarts are intentionally downplayed until her sharp edges are filed down and softened into palatable blandness. Each convention wives are called on to speechify in ways that will humanize their spouses for the American public. Apparently, and despite the fact that the majority of women in this country work outside the home, “humanizing” still means that in talking about her life she should emphasize being a wife and mother. (God forbid she appear strident or display her intellect; Hillary Clinton learned that the hard way when she got involved in health care reform).
For example, Michelle Obama talked about equal pay for equal work, made an oblique nod to reproductive rights, referenced the glass ceiling that Barack Obama’s grandmother encountered in her job at a bank, but even she stepped delicately four years ago, never once mentioning her own career as a lawyer and VP at the University of Chicago Medical Center. “You see, at the end of the day, my most important title is still ‘mom-in-chief,’ Obama said in her wrap up at the 2012 convention.
Michelle Obama is Everymom just as Barbara Bush was every Grandmom just as Melania is Everywife (except, of course, as a glamorous, millionaire model all the dowdy GOPs in the audience had stretch their imaginations to see her, like themselves, on her hands and knees vacuuming under the bed; she’d get dog hair all over that fancy party frock).
Each convention, the wives are trotted out on stage like flattened paper dolls and nowhere was this more apparent than when Melania Trump spoke last night. She delivered her careful talk like a contestant at a beauty contest, dressed in virginal white and smiling her bright smile to keep people focused on what she looked like rather than what she said, as she announced—sort of—her first lady’s pet project. She was following a long tradition: Ladybird Johnson, Project Headstart. Betty Ford, breast cancer awareness. Rosalynn Carter, mental health. Barbara Bush, literacy. Michelle Obama, childhood obesity.
Melania, with offensive-to-no-one vagueness, intends to “help people in our country who need it most.”
“One of the many causes dear to my heart is helping children and women,” she said. “You judge a society by how it treats its citizens. We must do our best to ensure that every child can live in comfort and security, with the best possible education.”
And that was it. Children should be educated and live in comfort and security. She’s on it, and who could possibly disagree because…well, what the hell does that mean? Making sure kids grow up drinking lead-free water? Funding universal preschool? Paying school crossing guards a living wage? Limiting school class size? Putting a health clinic in every school? Who knows? She never specified.
Or rather, her speech-writers didn’t. They, of course, ought to be fired for their crappy writing. And this was my take as I listened to the address while sitting in the hall of the convention center in Cleveland last night. That’s before The Guardian and many others reported in a story headlined, “She couldn’t make it up” that she plagiarized this “speech about honesty and integrity” by culling a couple of graphs directly from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech, bless her heart.