Melania Trump’s hijacking of Michelle Obama’s words in her keynote speech at the Republican National Convention on Monday night had the Trump camp immediately blaming her “team” of speechwriters, long before Meredith McIver took responsibility. Meanwhile, the political class is outraged that GOP nominee Donald Trump's wife did not rely enough on professional speechwriters. The mistake “reinforces dominant themes of Mr. Trump’s campaign,” the New York Times sniffed, including “a reliance on the instincts of the candidate over the judgments of experienced political experts,” like the speechwriters tasked with writing Melania Trump’s speech. “A certain professionalism is expected,” former White House speechwriter Matt Latimer insisted, condemning Trump’s “spontaneous, freewheeling enterprise that actively disdains experienced professionals.”
Once upon a time, “the speechwriter did it” wouldn’t have been the excuse—it would have been the scandal itself. Americans used to prefer the amateur’s natural awkwardness to the practiced pol’s slickness, and thought that using “ghostwriters” or “speechwriters” diluted a president’s authenticity. That was until Franklin D. Roosevelt modernized the presidency, and everything changed.
To Americans in the 1700s and 1800s, delivering a speech was an act of authenticity, not performance art. In speaking your own words, your delivery reflected your integrity. Watching George Washington’s inaugural speech as president on April 26, 1789, Representative Fisher Ames of Massachusetts was moved by Washington’s nervousness; it suited the occasion’s solemnity. “His aspect grave, almost to sadness; his modesty, actually shaking; his voice deep, a little tremulous, and so low as to call for close attention … produced emotions of the most affecting kind,” Ames later recalled. To him, Washington’s unease reinforced his greatness, it “seemed to me an allegory in which virtue was personified. … Her power over the heart was never greater.”
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