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“Don’t feel sorry for me. I can handle everything.”
When a presidential candidate’s wife gives a speech—a speech as significant as, say, the one she gives at the party’s national convention—there is a right way to do it and a wrong way. The right way is to work with at least one, if not several, speechwriters, seasoned ones, to come up with the best and most effective means by which to communicate a message, sending drafts back and forth until a version is agreed on by the principal—with luck, weeks in advance of the big night. That leaves time for the speech to make its way up the chain of command, through campaign aides who comment and edit, cut or elongate, add insight and experience, and polish the tone. The communications team of the candidate will go over every line, every anecdote, aiming to get ahead of potential gaffes or land mines. Eventually, the speech will land with the candidate’s chief of staff, who typically has the final say, or sign-off, and then it goes to the candidate for the okay. A smart candidate knows not to tangle with his or her spouse, so any edits the candidate makes will go back to the chief of staff, whose name is associated with the suggestions, covering for the candidate.
By the time the candidate’s spouse takes the podium, the speech has likely been read by at least twenty people, all of whom will have made notes, and most of whom know better than the candidate’s spouse does what will resonate in a convention hall during the most amped-up political rally of a candidate’s career. Most candidates’ spouses do not have their own speechwriter for the campaign, instead using the services of one or two members of the candidate’s own team.
But not Michelle Obama. She would have her own.
Sarah Hurwitz, the Harvard Law–educated speechwriter used by Michelle Obama for close to a decade—and who before that worked for Hillary Clinton and John Kerry—used to say that she would sit with Obama’s words and ideas and voice to “marinate” in them before she ever sat at her keyboard to spin them into prose. Hurwitz and Obama would conduct lengthy conversations about the speech topic, the location of the speech, the audience for the speech, and the tone, the first lady often setting the initial idea for Hurwitz, who would then take the ball and run with it. It was Hurwitz’s job to be inside Michelle Obama’s head, to know her personal stories so that she could weave them into her speech, crafting it from the seed of an idea to an occasion for mass adulation. Hurwitz’s voice had to be hidden so that Obama’s could shine through. By many accounts, Hurwitz devoted her life to speechwriting for Obama; she was doing more than just a job, she was writing words that would build the legacy of one of the most popular first ladies in modern history. Michelle Obama was a political wife who could move the needle on her husband’s popularity. Hurwitz knew the pressures, but she also knew Michelle Obama. One of the first speeches Hurwitz wrote for Michelle Obama, the 2008 Democratic National Convention speech in Denver, Colorado, would be her most important—and her most difficult. Hurwitz understood that the weeks she spent on its creation, the hours she passed listening to Obama tell her story of growing up on Chicago’s South Side, the myriad drafts that went back and forth after she took Obama’s own first pass into her watchful care, the minutes leading up to its delivery—all of it would make Michelle Obama’s the most successful and discussed speech of the convention. That was obvious. What Hurwitz didn’t know was that the speech resulting from her hard work would be used by another candidate’s spouse, who would deliver the most heartfelt portions of it at her own husband’s national convention almost eight years later.
Less than an hour after Melania Trump stepped away from the podium in Cleveland, Ohio, wrapping up a speech to the 2016 Republican National Convention, Jarrett Hill, a freelance journalist in Los Angeles, busted her: “Melania stole a whole graph from Michelle’s speech. #GOPConvention,” Hill tweeted, with a link to a recording of Melania’s speech and a photographed excerpt from Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech, with the section that Melania’s speech cribbed highlighted.
“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,” said Melania, talking about what her parents had taught her.
“That you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them.”
Melania went on:
“We need to pass those lessons on to many generations to follow, because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”
Michelle’s speech was basically the same:
“Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generation. Because we want our children—and all children in this nation—to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”
It was a needle-off-the-record moment.
For three to four hours after Hill’s tweet, disbelief set in for the Trump campaign staff. According to one member of the team I spoke with, none of them had seen a copy of Melania’s speech before she delivered it. Not a one. This was unheard of. There wasn’t enough time or hands on deck to do so, they said. And if someone did read it, which this person conceded might possibly have happened without his knowledge, that person certainly didn’t vet it or have the political chops to know to vet it. If it was looked at—and no one believes that it was—the idea to compare it to, say, the most recent speeches of similar importance by candidates’ spouses just didn’t pop into anyone’s head. It was the proverbial wrong way to do a spouse speech on a stage this large.
“Wait, did she just…?” they whispered to one another. “Nah. No way … right?” But, yes, she did.
It was doubly stunning because Melania had otherwise done a good job with the speech, delivering it with clarity, the words (whosever they were) heartfelt and impassioned. It had set the right tone, and it introduced Melania to the country and to hard-core Republicans, who before this evening knew little about their candidate’s third wife other than that she was pretty and dressed well.
And Melania did share, for once throwing off the armor of privacy. She discussed the country of her birth, Slovenia, her parents—her mom who taught her about fashion, her dad about business and travel—and her even more elusive sister, Ines. I’m willing to bet 99 percent of the public didn’t even know she had a sister. Melania showed some glam, just a touch to inspire aspirational envy, the type fashion magazines aim to hit: not enough for you to be actually jealous of the actress in the cover story, but enough for you to want to read about her face cream, her workout routine, and where she buys her clothes. “I traveled the world while working hard in the incredible arena of fashion,” said Melania with her thick, exotic accent. This was, after all, Ohio. She said she had lived in Paris and Milan, pronouncing the latter “Mee-lan,” the “right” way.
Her white sheath dress was by a Serbian designer named Roksanda Ilincic. It also had just the right touch of celebrity sparkle—a feminine flounce at the hems of the sleeves, a discreet exposed zipper up the back for some sex appeal. Like Melania, Ilincic was born in a country that was part of the now former Yugoslavia, and she left. It’s unlikely, however, that Melania intentionally picked a Roksanda dress because of her shared heritage with the designer; more likely, she simply saw it for sale online, liked it, and scooped it up at its retail price of $2,190. (By the next day, it was sold out.)
Beyond her white dress—with its cheeky subliminal message of wanting to be America’s bride—Melania delivered the conservative gut punches she had planned for the speech to land. She talked about becoming a United States citizen in 2006, and she said how much she loved this country. The crowd went wild. By the time she got to her sentence thanking veterans, pointing out former senator Bob Dole, a GOP icon, the audience was beside themselves with patriotic whooping and applause, made more intense when a frail and wheelchair-bound Dole was helped to his feet to wave back to her in gratitude.
She brought it home going on about her husband, the leader she knew him to be, the committed fighter, the successful TV star who just wants you to be like him, to get a little slice of the economic pie. He is a tough guy, she admitted, but he also has a heart. This part, really, only Melania could attempt with success. She gave him the emotional cred in the way a wife could. Tough guy? Sure. But Melania says he’s a private softie.
She said he wanted prosperity for everyone, of every race and economic background, that he had compassion for all mankind. Out there, in the rest of America, particularly Hillary country on either coast, there was a collective “huh?” But in the arena, to his fans, true or not, she drilled it home: “I have seen the talent, the energy, the tenacity, the resourceful mind and the simple goodness of the heart that God gave to Donald Trump.” She closed with some foreshadowing: “There will be good times and hard times and unexpected turns. It would not be a Trump contest without excitement and drama.”
She wasn’t kidding.
Copyright © 2019 by Kate Bennett