Politics, World

GOP Convention, Cleveland: Melania Trump’s speech malfunction and other curious tales from Day One

GOP Convention, Cleveland: Melania Trump’s speech malfunction and other curious tales from Day One

By the time you read this story, the second day of the Republican convention to nominate a presidential candidate will be wrapping up, but the first day was surely one for the history books. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a startled look.

Well, the Republican National Nominating Convention has begun and it is already one for the history books, and perhaps in a revised edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, it seems as well. There are still three more days of this and it is now virtually impossible to imagine what else the evil gnomes in charge there have in store for the rest of us until it wraps up on Thursday.

Monday night was supposed to be tightly focused on the issue of security, domestic and international – officially titled by the organisers: “Make America Safe Again”. Traditionally, the Republicans have been able to focus their messages rather tightly in their conventions over the past several decades, but this convention may well break the string – on pretty much everything.

Watch: Republican Convention Day 1: Highlights | The New York Times

Right at the start, there was a commotion on the floor of the convention centre as dissident delegates (presumably from among those delegations from states where Donald Trump did not come out ahead of all the other candidates) tried to gain a state-by-state roll call vote on convention rules changes that could have allowed all individual delegates to vote according to their consciences, rather than remaining pledged to Trump. (The idea is, roughly: he who sets the rules gains a measure of control over the proceedings – and the results.) Obviously the rebels did not expect to prevail, but they did want their position noted down for posterity. That mini-rebellion was quashed, but ill feeling will fester.

Then the speeches began. Given the way it went, maybe they shouldn’t have, however. The Republicans amassed a whole list of people to speak – including elected politicians, a sheriff, a grieving mother, a former New York City mayor, and the candidate’s spouse. Former Mayor Rudi Giuliani, in his speech slot, raged and raved. Although he didn’t quite invoke the wrath of the heavens or threaten eternal damnation, he did finger the perfidies of the Obama administration, and Hillary Clinton in particular, as an existential danger to the republic.

Then, Patricia Smith, mother of one of the victims in the Benghazi massacre – in a poignant, tearjerker of a speech – blamed Hillary Clinton for the death of her son, insisting, “I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son. Personally.” They were really on a roll by then with the suggestion that instead of her trademark pants suits, Hillary Clinton should be wearing one of those prison garb striped overalls instead.

Retired Army General Michael Flynn, formerly of the Defence Intelligence Agency, and who had supposedly been on Trump’s shortlist for the vice presidency until Michael Pence pipped him at the post, also aimed for a stem-winder of a speech. Rather obviously attempting to out-Giuliani Giuliani, Flynn thundered that Obama, and now Clinton, was a danger to the republic and perilous to the nation’s secrets.

As he went on, and on, and on, he said, “We are tired of Obama’s empty speeches and his misguided rhetoric. This, this has caused the world to have no respect for America’s word, nor does it fear our might…. My God, war is not about bathrooms. War is not about political correctness or words that are meaningless. War is about winning. My message to you is very clear: Wake up, America! There is no substitute for American leadership and exceptionalism.”

Unfortunately for the next and final speaker, Senator Joni Ernest, Flynn spoke so long that the weary, hungry, increasingly restive crowd was streaming to the exits (“Can you get supper in Cleveland after 11 pm?” – a question on many minds, obviously) well before he was finished. As a result, the senator got to speak to a largely empty hall and as millions switched off their TVs so they could get to bed – well after 11pm on the East Coast. Ernest’s speech was supposed to be her national-level televised try-out for possible bigger things, a special kind of audition to position her for a potential challenge for the 2020 or 2024 Republican nominations, either as a presidential or vice presidential candidate. Bad luck, that. Obama, after all, had electrified the crowd and the television audiences alike with his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, and it served as a springboard for his eventual candidacy four years later.

A little earlier in the evening, however, was where the real fun took place. Melania Trump, the candidate’s third wife (sequentially), was positioned to give the kind of personal insights – all those warm fuzzies – about the real Donald Trump that only a partner or close family member can deliver.

In recent conventions, for example, Ann Romney and Michelle Obama made this task work out magnificently for their spouses. Romney managed to humanise her husband and portray him as a kind of deeply religious Mormon, businessman-turned-politician mensch. And Michelle Obama helped flesh out a sympathetic portrait of a relatively unknown outsider with that “funny name” as a man who exults in the warmth of family life and whose path of spiritual growth had made him that much better of a human being.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. Earlier conventions did not feature speeches by presidential candidates’ wives, especially since women were not allowed to vote until 1920. But, especially since Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1930s and ‘40s, and then with Jackie Kennedy in the early 1960s, first ladies and would-be first ladies have often become that much more in evidence in presidential campaigns – and with the advent of television, their reach has continued to grow.

Now, especially as presidential politics has come to mirror entertainment television more and more, a spousal home run at the nominating convention can give a lift to an entire campaign. It helps potential voters see an intimate, personal side of a candidate that is rarely revealed, even via in-depth articles in major newspapers and magazines. In any case, in our present attention-deficit debilitated circumstances, the real media increasingly is what comes through to people via video clips and short insights from social media, rather than in those long-form print exercises. And that is where the spouse’s insights can be particularly helpful.

And so there it was – the moment for the spouse’s star turn. Donald Trump strode on to the convention centre stage, in silhouette, with the smoke machines churning away and the sound system pumping out Queen’s We are the Champions (despite the group’s representative’s insistence that they had not authorised any Trumpian use of one of the group’s megahits), to introduce his wife.

That man clearly must be the baby at every christening, the bride at every wedding, and the corpse at every funeral,” as one of my old supervisors used to say of some of the big wigs of the international stage who were terminally afflicted with a raging Narcissus complex. The candidate’s appearance on the first day of a convention was, in itself, unprecedented. But what came next, inadvertently, perhaps, was even more interesting.

Melania Trump’s speech quickly started bells ringing with some observant listeners, including a sometime-freelance reporter and fashion specialist. Crucial phrases had an eerie echo (that’s politesse for plagiarised) of what Michelle Obama had said in her speech back in 2008. And it was not just a word or two, here and there, but whole unattributed sentences, thoughts, ideas, images and referents. (Readers can see for themselves, below.) Oops.

Watch: Comparing Michelle Obama and Melania Trump’s speeches (CNN)

Well, okay, anybody can make a tiny mistake. To err is human, etc. But the Trump campaign then proceeded to rub salt into some already rather tender wounds about his own bumptious way (a.k.a. a raging case of “liar liar, pants on fire” misstatements so far this year) with words, facts and factoids.

But before she gave her speech, Melania had also given a short interview on the Trumpian jet in which she explained that she had laboured over her speech and it was her work, with a little help from friends (English is not her first language, after all.) However, this interview came to light just as people were beginning to see the Obama and Trump speeches played on alternate split screen on millions of television sets and computer screens.

Then the campaign rushed out a statement that “explained” that anonymous speechwriters had crafted this address, but the statement avoided entirely the question of how so much of Michelle Obama’s text had migrated into Melania Trump’s moment. Or, as Trump spokesman Jason Miller said about this non-event, “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. Melania’s immigrant experience and love for America shone through in her speech, which made it such a success.” Oops.

But, then, early on Tuesday morning, Paul Manafort, the truculent Trump campaign chair who sounds exactly like Sylvester Stallone’s character, Rocky Balboa, went live on news channel television to tell the universe that there had been zero copying whatsoever. None. Nada.

On a real rhetorical roll, Manafort bellowed that Melania had only used common usage words. It was all her thoughts, her ideas, her feelings and her words. And besides, this kind of attack against her is precisely what happens to a strong woman like her who opposes Hillary Clinton; they get attacked just like this. Huh? Is this what they call transference? Or, is it blaming the victim? Or, perhaps it is punching below the belt? Or something. Maybe he has even created an entirely new category of sophistry.

The problem, the real problem, the really real problem is less that Melania (or her wordsmiths) cheated by looking at the exam book of the bright kid sitting at the next desk to get the right answers to the trick questions on the final exam. Rather, it was that this messy episode exposed a real creaking weakness within what passes for the Trumpian campaign organisation, beyond carrying out the boilerplate stuff like scheduling trips and rallies.

A post-nominating convention campaign (and even more so the actual presidency) is a multi-level, free-for-all of competing, simultaneous issues, crises, and challenges. The four days of a national convention are the one (last) time that pretty much every detail is within the control of the candidate and his/her team. If one can’t even check the speeches to make sure they aren’t quoting mythic figures, horrific dictators, or the nasty opposition, it says something less than flattering about how the candidate and his team may react to the stresses and strains of the real, uncontrolled world beyond the campaign headquarters.

Early on Tuesday morning, Ron Brownstein, now of CNN but formerly a senior reporter/columnist with the Los Angeles Times, noted that this contretemps had stepped all over the ostensible message of day one of this convention. As Brownstein had argued, the Trump campaign’s logic of day one had been to speak about security – when the house was on fire. For them, it should not have been a truly hard case to make for those Trumpians, at least in their terms of the issue. But their challenge is also to portray Trump as the fireman, instead of the arsonist. If the campaign metaphorically insists on pouring kerosene on fires – rather than offering the candidate as the man who can tame those same conflagrations – his campaign may have some real trouble ahead.

Going forward, tonight the line-up of speakers, aside from the actual vote for their nominee (spoiler alert – Donald Trump will be the nominee), will be the following: House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, the man whose mating ritual with the Donald had played out awkwardly and publicly, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as the leading Republican incumbent political figures. Dr Ben Carson and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will also speak. Both men had also wanted the job as nominee, and Christie was rather abruptly nudged aside as Trump’s pick as his vice presidential nominee as well. Despite his likely still-bruised ego, Christie told NBC-TV’s popular Today morning show, “I’m going to make a case tonight that Donald Trump is ready to be president of the United States, and perhaps his opponent is not.”

Then there will also be Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and professional golfer Natalie Gulbis. Also crowding the stage will be not one but two Trump children, Donald Jr and Tiffany. Presumably they will not be cribbing from Natasha and Malia’s term papers on what they did on their summer vacation or in their finals at Sidwell Friends School.

Meanwhile, in possible signs of trouble, a new New York Times study of voting probabilities state-by-state (which is what really matters in a first-past-the-post, electoral college election) was released on Tuesday, saying, “The Upshot’s elections model suggests that Hillary Clinton is favoured to win the presidency, based on the latest state and national polls. A victory by Mr. Trump remains quite possible: Mrs. Clinton’s chance of losing is about the same probability that an N.B.A. player will miss a free throw.”

Maybe Melania Trump’s faux pas will eventually pass relatively unnoticed, especially if there are other “pants on fire” statements from the candidate. But, if Trump does go down to a stinging defeat, his wife’s speech-giving malfunction might just be the place where analysts may say was where the debacle first started. And dozens of Republican candidates for other offices across the country will remember it. And remember it, especially if they lose their respective elections as well. DM

Photo: Donald Trump (L) escorts his wife Melania (R) after her speech during the second session on the first day of the 2016 Republican National Convention at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, US, 18 July 2016. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS


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