Like many other people, I’ve been amazed and amused by the story of Melania Trump’s plagiarized speech at the Republican National Convention on Monday. Big shout-out to reporter Jarrett Hill for breaking the story of the speech’s substantial overlap with the speech Michelle Obama gave at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. (Note: Hill wasn’t one of the many reporters at the convention. The Los Angeles Times said he was watching MSNBC’s live stream while drinking a venti iced coffee in a Culver City, Calif., Starbucks.)
How did Melania manage to mess up? According to the New York Times, Jared Kushner — Donald Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser — originally commissioned a speech from two experienced speechwriters, Matthew Scully and John McConnell. They turned in a draft last month, but didn’t hear anything back. Melania “was uncomfortable with the text and began tearing it apart,” the Times reported, based on interviews with “more than a dozen people involved in and close to the Trump campaign.”
Melania got some help (it wasn’t immediately clear how much) from a person who the Times described as a “trusted hand.” The trusted hand was:
“…Meredith McIver, a New York City-based former ballet dancer and English major who has worked on some of Mr. Trump’s books, including ‘Think Like a Billionaire.'”
The ballet dancer factoid was colorful enough for Vanity Fair to call its blog post about the Times article: “Is a Ballerina to Blame for Melania Trump’s Plagiarized Speech?”
I got totally sidetracked by description, and — even worse — I was no longer amused.
The picture that popped up in my head thanks to the Times description and Vanity Fair angle was one of a woman who was one of many in the corps de ballet till … oh … last year, and who in her spare time maybe worked on some dust jacket images for Trump’s tomes. (A quick look at Amazon shows that she’s given a co-author credit on four Trump books.) But I dismissed that image quickly because I’ve had experience with someone cherry picking from a person’s bio in order to present that person as unqualified for a job. As I said on Twitter:
After McIver took responsibility for the speech in a statement on the Trump campaign’s website, the Times found a new way to describe her — as “a longtime employee of the Trump Organization.” In McIver’s own statement, she described herself as an “in-house staff writer,” and noted that she offered to resign over the speech brouhaha but that Trump and his family declined. “Mr. Trump told me that people make innocent mistakes and that we learn and grow from these experiences,” the statement said. For what it’s worth, the Wall Street Journal story on McIver’s statement refers to her variously as a “writer,” “an employee of Donald Trump’s company,” and “an in-house staff writer with the Trump Organization.”
Is the Trump campaign dancing around the truth by getting Trump’s ghostwriter to take the fall for Melania? Maybe. Do I agree with the Times’s description of how the incident reflects on the campaign? Definitely. As the Times wrote:
“[The speech] reinforces dominant themes of Mr. Trump’s campaign that still linger from the primary, which his team has struggled to change: a deliberately bare-bones campaign structure, a slapdash style and a reliance on the instincts of the candidate over the judgments of experienced political experts…”
Would I hire Meredith McIver to write for me? Hell no! But I’m still irked that that the Times selected the facts that would be most likely to bimbo-ize her.
As for Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech, one of my favorite fact-checking sites, Snopes, investigated and disproved the rumor that the Obama speech had cribbed from Stephen R. Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Snopes reported that nowhere in any of Covey’s books “were we able to find the passage quoted above, or even any of the central phrases comprising it. In fact, no part of the passage was publicly attributed to Stephen R. Covey before it began turning up on Facebook the day after Melania Trump’s speech, 19 July 2016, which appears to be the date on which it was first published anywhere.”
Snopes also analyzed social-media claims that “substantial portions of Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC speech echoed concepts and phrasing taken from Rules for Radicals,” a book by Saul Alinsky. The short answer is “A portion of a single sentence from Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC speech bore resemblance to a single line from Saul Alinsky’s book Rules for Radicals.” The longer answer really rejects anything but a superficial similarity in groupings of words, which are used to make a different point from Alinsky’s.
Finally, back to Jarrett Hill, who broke the story on the speech. The L.A. Times reported that in 2014, Hill had moved from L.A. to Florida to take a job as a producer and a digital on-camera reporter for ABC Action News WFTS. He was laid off eight months later. He’s been looking for a new full-time job since April 2015 and, in the meantime, has been freelancing for media organizations. He also runs an interior design business on the side (a fact that is meaningful because it’s what he’s doing now). I hope he gets some good offers out of this experience … and lots of laughs over the the interview requests from his former co-workers in Florida!
UPDATED TO ADD: People are quasi-joking that Meredith McIver is another one of Trump’s invented personae, like his 1980s/90s “publicist” alter ego John Miller, aka John Barron. No one has tracked her down yet!
Is this Meredith McIver? pic.twitter.com/b24rPg6D8t
— Ben Greenman (@bengreenman) July 20, 2016
Well, that would certainly explain why McIver’s initial resume was limited to ballet (implying a slender body) and an English major (so she’s has some kind of education but isn’t linked to a real, traceable job). Women’s appearances are very important to Trump.
BREAKING : Meredith McIver and John Miller hold private meeting to discuss damage control. pic.twitter.com/hafQA0wx9H
— Gord Macey (@GordMacey) July 20, 2016
I would dismiss this as a crackpot conspiracy theory except that … I can’t, based on Trump’s past behavior. I’m eagerly awaiting the journalist who either finds McIver or proves she doesn’t exist! If she doesn’t exist, I’m going to wonder if this whole campaign was an elaborate practical joke produced by the people who brought us Veep. AND WHAT IF TRUMP HAS BEEN PLAYED BY ANDY KAUFMAN ALL ALONG?!?!
UPDATED AGAIN TO ADD: Actress/singer Laura Benanti (confirmed to be a real person) did a highlarious and impressively straight-faced impersonation of Melania Trump for the Late Show With Stephen Colbert.
Give the woman an Emmy right now!
UPDATED JULY 21 TO ADD: The New York Times has determined that Meredith McIver is a real 65-year-old person with a face that has been photographed. Some of the information came from a boyfriend-turned-longtime-friend whose name — surprisingly — is NOT Tonald Drump. The story starts by casting McIver’s ballet background in a much more flattering light (and now the information is actually pertinent to the story):
“In her mid-30s and slowed by injuries, Meredith McIver, a classically trained ballerina who had danced under the limelight with Balanchine and the ensembles of Broadway musicals, decided to pursue her passion for writing.”
But it’s hard to write about women, apparently, without resorting to some kind of corny line. This time, we’ve got, “She settled on the Upper West Side and her fashionable dress, dancer’s figure and green eyes turned heads at the grocery.”
DAFUQ? I have questions. Did she only turn heads at the grocery? Not the bookstore? Not the vestibule of her apartment building? Was she unattractive in the subway? Did this bizarre line come from paraphrasing a specific anecdote told by the guy whose name isn’t Tonald Drump? At least it reminded me that I wanted to share New York Magazine’s Mad Libs-style “profile generator for female celebrities.” It’s worth your while to fill in the blanks and then read your “story.”