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A speechwriter’s truth

Why the story of Melania's speech was mesmerizing to one who knows how to craft another's words with precision

I went a little crazy from Melania’s plagiarism. Most people probably found the scandal curious, perhaps  amusing, embarrassing, or validating. Maybe infuriating.

I posted 16 articles, jokes, and references on social media in the course of 18 hours, including seven hours of sleep. I wrote my own jokes, in case you’re wondering. And that was just on my own page. The last time I did that…was never. Amazingly, no one unfriended me. So far.

Honestly, I know people (my friends) are not as obsessed as I am. Because my crack about Duck Dynasty and Chachi and my one-minute video of the heavy rain got more likes.

Nonetheless, here goes. One of my favorite gigs in life has been as a speechwriter. It is a unique experience to get to know someone well enough to write words, phrases, ideas and beliefs that she or he will utter. If it’s not done well, with nuance and precision, it’s instantly evident.

Speechwriting, more than anything, is about connection — between the writer and the speaker, and the speaker and the audience. There is something quite thrilling about standing in a crowded room, hearing and watching someone deliver a speech that you wrote. It feels powerful and soulful and mysterious all at the same time.

When I was watching Melania, there was a nagging disconnect. I didn’t know yet that she had plagiarized from Michelle Obama’s speech, but I did not believe her. And when she spoke of love and kindness, I thought, that’s Hillary’s campaign. Certainly not words that could be used to distill the essence of either the Trump campaign or the Republican platform.

I think why this story had such legs is because it was mesmerizing to watch the two speakers, Melania and Michelle, side by side. Finally, a moment of clarity in this insane election.

It was obvious that Michelle was completely natural expressing these particular ideas and feelings. She was completely in her own skin, of the moment. Whereas, Melania could have been saying almost anything else with the exact same inflection and conviction. She wasn’t telling her own story.

A lot has been noted about the irony and deceit of Melania claiming Michelle’s words for her own. It is not the first time that a white person has claimed ownership of a black person, of a body, land, or concept that uniquely belongs to them. The same is true for the Jewish world experience.

A Jewish woman, Sarah Hurwitz, wrote that speech for Michelle, crafted and tailored that speech for Michelle. Sarah graduated from Harvard University and Harvard Law School. She has been working for the White House as speechwriter and advisor for eight years. Before that, she was Hillary Clinton’s and John Kerry’s speechwriter, among others.

Michelle Obama graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. She went on to serve as a University of Chicago Dean and Vice President, and then, of course, First Lady of the United States. Michelle’s background and achievements are hers to sift through and articulate.

In both Melania’s official bio and in official Republican National Convention literature, the Trumps claim that Melania Krauss Trump graduated from college with a degree in Design and Architecture from the University in Slovenia. This is not true. Melania dropped out of college as a freshman to pursue modeling.

As with the speech plagiarism, people are baffled as to the Trumps’ investment in lying about information that is so easily exposed. Is it hubris, entitlement, shame, or part of a more inherent, transcendent narrative of deceit?

Sure, there were other words apart from the plagiarized sections that Melania used, including Donald’s respect, honor and love for his parents. But father Fred was a notorious anti-Semite and racist. We heard no disavowal of the hateful legacy that is an integral part of the Trump fortune.

There is a beautiful, inspiring history of Jews marching alongside African-Americans in the American Civil Rights movement. Our own struggles as a people informed our empathy and sense of justice.

We are no strangers to having our homes, businesses, money, precious belongings, family heirlooms, identities stolen from us. Throughout history, this has been the Jewish story.

The experiences and ideas Melania Trump stole belonged to a black woman. The work Melania Trump stole belonged to a Jewish woman. Melania Trump ripped off what they accomplished together, and tried to pass it off to the country as her own.

America has an ugly legacy of abuse and slavery that still needs rectification. The modern State of Israel owes its existence to the guilt the world felt after the Holocaust — and the fact that most countries didn’t want us.

But people get tired of feeling guilty. And they turn again. They justify, deny, go on the attack. They refuse to be honest, introspective, or apologetic.

That’s why we can’t take our eyes off the Melania debacle. It’s not petty. As we look into her eyes, we have a clear view of the predatory avarice and destructive ambition that would steal our history and humanity, if it could.

And the writers, we bear witness.

To learn more about Sarah Hurwitz’s art of speechwriting, see this wonderful interview in The Washington  Post from three years ago.

About the Author
Dana is a Jewish feminist, writer and poet. She is passionate about her daughter, love, kindness, spirituality, the artist's voice, and speaking out for the vulnerable. She lives in Music City, Nashville, TN.
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