Within minutes of Melania Trump finishing her speech at the US Republican Convention, the news was out that she had plagiarised a couple of the more stirring paragraphs. This was embarrassing for her husband's presidential campaign. It was additionally awkward that the words were lifted from a speech delivered eight years ago by Michelle Obama.
I'm interested in the political fall-out from this, of course, as I am in anything that might cause Trump to stumble in his hair-raising progress towards the White House. But I'm also interested in what the story reveals about the ethics of this particular form of utterance – not an agreed policy statement delivered by a member of a political team, but a personal testimony framed as memoir:
From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life. That your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise. That you treat people with respect…
In the Trump tradition there has been no official acknowledgement of wrongdoing, just bluster. A Trump spokesman asserted that these are 'common words and values'. True enough. The borrowed passages promote individual integrity, egalitarianism, hard work and the limitless power of personal dreams – the kind of things that many Americans like to believe they believe in.
According to another spokesman, 'In writing her beautiful speech, Melania's team of writers took notes on her life's inspirations, and in some instances included fragments that reflected her own thinking.' What a sinuous journey that sentence takes from Melania's ownership to an occasional, fragmentary reflection of her thoughts! Even political commentators hostile to Donald Trump described his wife as a 'victim' of an incompetent, or possibly sociopathic, employee. A speechwriter later came forward to exonerate Melania and to offer her own muddled account of how the mistake was made.
As a writer myself, as a teacher of writing, as an attentive listener to other people's words andas a person living outside the political bubble, I'm bemused at the assumption among the political class that stories about one's childhood and the values one's parents espoused can simply be confected by hired hands. This is naïve of me, I know. But I'm struggling to understand why one kind of plagiarism is a humiliating scandal, while another is just business as usual.
Ten years ago, a memoir called A Million Little Pieces became an instant classic of 'misery lit' when Oprah Winfrey featured it on her TV show. When journalists discovered that some of the worst of the misery had been fabricated. Oprah invited the author back to tell him that she felt 'really duped' and that he had 'betrayed millions of readers'. A line had been drawn and memoirists took note. Encouraged by Melania Trump to pursue my dreams, I dream of a future in which we no longer conspire in our millions to be duped by public figures, and all political campaigners are held to the Oprah standard of integrity.