By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – The morning after Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s wife Melania addressed the GOP national convention and accusations swirled that she had stolen part of the speech, a handful of friends sent me the same doctored photograph.
The picture showed Melania Trump and Michelle Obama – from whose 2008 speech to the Democratic National Convention Mrs. Trump seems to have lifted a key passage – sitting at old-fashioned school desks.
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
Mrs. Obama is writing intently while Mrs. Trump seems to be looking over the First Lady’s shoulder, trying to copy her work.
Both Republicans and Democrats sent me the picture because the jokes and the jibes about Mrs. Trump’s rhetorical transgression have passed beyond partisanship. Even in an America this fractured, if there is one thing that unites Americans, it is a desire to have a laugh at the expense of the rich, powerful and famous.
And the Trumps prolonged the laughter – first by denying the obvious similarities between the two speeches and then by trying to blame the whole thing on Hillary Clinton.
(What, are the Trumps now letting Clinton write their speeches and hire their speechwriters? If so, it would explain an awful lot.)
Finally, Wednesday morning – nearly two days after the speech – the speechwriter who helped Mrs. Trump draft the address took responsibility for the gaffe by issuing a statement that was both self-abasing and evasive at the same time.
By then, the laughter and the jokes about Mrs. Trump’s bit of intellectual pilfering had consumed almost two precious days of national attention – a lifetime in politics.
That is what drives professional politicians in the Republican Party nuts.
The day after Mrs. Trump’s speech, I talked with a Hoosier Republican who did not support The Donald initially but has made his peace with having Trump as the party’s standard-bearer.
“He won the most votes. You have to respect the will of the voters,” he said.
That said, episodes such as Melania Trump’s speech reinforce every doubt experienced politicians have about the candidate.
“It is so easy to knock Trump off message,” he lamented.
He then complained about the Trump campaign’s habit of committing unforced errors and shooting itself in the foot.
“They should have said they made a mistake, apologized and moved on,” he concluded. “Instead, they’re doing Hillary’s work for her.”
National conventions now are like four-day partisan infomericals, the best chance a party and its candidates have to advance a message without interruption or distraction. Successful campaigns use these conventions to make a case, one the presidential candidate closes with a rousing speech on the convention’s final night.
That’s what Republicans were trying to do in Cleveland.
The focus of Monday night’s events was supposed to be on security issues. Tuesday night was supposed to be about jobs and the economy.
Instead of directing Americans’ attention to those issues, the Trump campaign allowed much of their time in the nation’s spotlight to become open mic night at amateur comedy clubs all over the country, with the candidate’s wife as the butt of the joke.
The violence across the country and the terrorist attacks around the world have made many Americans uneasy about security, which means they likely would be willing to hear what Republicans have to say about ways to make our people safer.
And there may be no issue Donald Trump is better positioned to exploit than the economic one. Because he is the first major presidential candidate since Dwight Eisenhower not to have held any previous elective office, he can’t be held responsible for either party’s failures. At a time when both the stock market and the jobs numbers are soaring but poverty rates are exploding and the middle class is evaporating, he can ask why so many Americans are suffering in a time of seeming plenty with an authority no traditional politician can match.
But he’s now squandered much of that opportunity.
Donald Trump likes to boast that he’s not a politician – that he wouldn’t have won if he were just another politician.
But the flip side of not being an experienced politician is that he makes a lot of rookie mistakes like this one.
And the problem with rookie mistakes is that they can cost you the game in a hurry.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.