22/07/2016 06:17 BST | Updated 22/07/2017 06:12 BST

The Problem With Political Speeches Isn't Plagiarism, It's Platitudes

I listened to Melania Trump's speech, like many people, cringing. I didn't spot the close similarities with Michelle Obama's speech until the media jumped on them. I was cringing for a different reason, namely the hollow platitudes that dominate much of modern political speechwriting. Clearly Ms. Obama had a better delivery but she, like Ms. Trump, recited the same old clichés we've heard a million times in addresses from school teachers, sports coaches, CEOs at the annual shareholder meeting and of course, politicians. Ad nauseam.


It's awful watching a politician's wife tell everyone how great he is. That good wife shtick is an anachronism in the modern world. Of course she thinks he's a great guy, she's married to him. I'd like to think my wife would give me a glowing report too, but I wouldn't expect it to influence anyone with half a brain into voting for me. And if my wife did give a speech for me, I'd hope she'd come up with something better than assuring people I wasn't unreliable, lazy or a bigot, which was more or less the message we heard from Ms. Trump.

Telling anyone that your values include doing what you'll say you'll do, working hard and respecting people regardless of gender, status or colour is hardly much to boast about, is it? Those values should be a baseline. They're taught to us as children, enshrined in religions, schools, workplaces and a deluge of inspirational quote posters, mugs and idiotic pictures on Twitter and Facebook. It's stating the blindingly obvious and making it sound deep, but it's not.

Honesty, integrity, respect, hard work? Deep down inside, do those qualities really merit inclusion in a modern speech, made at a time of dramatic domestic tensions, global economic problems and rising tides of extremism? For a highly controversial political candidate, too? It's dross. Speechwriting is formulaic, and were anyone asked to compile a number of basic core values to win the support of the crowd, honesty, integrity, respect and hard work would be no-brainers. It's like ticking off a list. Add "kind to animals" and "helps old folks across the road" and you've won political cliché bingo.

As for plagiarism, how many different ways can you express those basic concepts in simple, accessible language to describe another person? Not many. It begins with "he/she believes..." and ends in simple descriptions of each virtue. Which is what Ms. Trump did. And so did Ms. Obama. Trump just had a lousy proofreader who failed to spot the direct similarities. If the nouns had been replaced by synonyms, verbs exchanged, the sequence of clauses varied... who would cry plagiarism? Nobody. But it would still be a fairly unremarkable set of platitudes. Shouldn't we care more about that? It's rather disappointing to see the news media pounce on the plagiarism as opposed to criticising the fact Melania Trump avoided saying anything interesting about the man who would be king.

The spouse's supporting speech is never going to be "I have a dream" or "Four score years and ten" obviously, but all the same, honesty, hard work and respect is more gripping when my 5-year-old recites it in the school assembly than on a giant stage with lasers and fireworks. In other similar speeches, even Ms. Obama's, the amount of interesting, illuminating material (as opposed to feel-good rhetoric) is minimal. It's a formatting problem, not the lack of originality that shamed Ms. Trump.

There is, however, one important takeaway from the whole episode. For a candidate like Trump, who has styled himself as the outsider and demonstrated a complete lack of the usual nomination-chasing protocol, this move into familiar mainstream campaign presentation is a tactical risk. This first major public outing, with a new campaign manager, is the closest he has come to emulating all the mainstream candidates of yesteryear. If you saw Trump for the first time at that convention, you might have wondered what all the Trump controversy is about. Trump appeared just like Romney, McCain, Bush and Dole. Light show, wife, kids, balloons, crowd-pleasing speeches. Yawn.

Trump is now playing by more predictable, traditional campaign rules. Which means his outsider image is slipping. He's playing Hilary Clinton on her terms if he carries on. That's not his strong suit. You can't claim to be the anti-establishment choice if you appear like the last establishment candidate (who lost) and your wife's speech sounds just like the last establishment guy's wife (the guy you hate, who won). How Trump handles that issue, unlike the speeches, will be interesting to watch.