Albright: Melania's Mistake

Jul 25, 2016

In my experience as a college professor, a student who plagiarizes doesn’t have the luxury of a speechwriter taking the fall.

That’s what Trump campaign staff writer Meredith McIver did when she told reporters that Melania Trump had read passages from Michelle Obama’s speech into the phone - merely as “examples,” and that is was she, McIver - who mistakenly included them verbatim in Trump’s speech. “I didn’t check Mrs. Obama’s speeches,” McIver admitted, blaming herself for the whole thing.

This begs two questions: didn’t McIver already know, from that phone call, that the sentences were “examples” of Michelle Obama’s writing? And why didn’t Melania Trump, who had selected those chunks from Obama’s speech, notice them in the final text, and delete them?

If a college student of mine had copied and pasted text from the Internet into a term paper without attribution, I would have advised that while it’s okay to admire someone’s language, even to copy it verbatim into research notes, passing it off as original crosses an ethical line, and, yes, earns a failing grade – and even perhaps results in expulsion.

Lest I sound partisan, it’s worth remembering that Vice President Biden, among other politicians, has also been caught plagiarizing. The media's been dredging all that up. So my beef here, really, isn’t just with Trump, or her speechwriter, or with their democratic rivals. It’s a more general lament: that we don’t seem to hold adult politicians to the same ethical standards we expect of college students.

And apparently, even when voters notice fibs like this - they just don’t seem to care much about them. A recent Pew Research Poll finds that 13 percent of registered voters consider Hillary Clinton to be honest, and 19 percent would use that word to describe Donald Trump. And in that same poll, 80 percent say they are thinking hard about the election - and find it “interesting.” So ironically, since presumably most of them will vote, it seems clear that a lot of voters will mark their ballots for people they distrust.

I’ll grant that in the general scheme of things plagiarism may not be a serious transgression – and sure, things like this happen in the heat of campaigns. But I still find this whole episode disturbing.

Something good might come of it, though. Perhaps teachers will follow the lead of Terri Coleman, an English professor at Dillard University in New Orleans, who plans to use Melania Trump’s speech as an example of what not to do – in writing class.