On 18 July 2016 Melania Trump gave a rousing speech at the Republican National Convention (RNC), well-received for a few moments before journalists and viewers began comparing its content to a 2008 Democratic National Convention (DNC) speech given by First Lady Michelle Obama:
Controversy predictably raged thereafter on social media, where parodies and joke memes mocked Mrs. Trump’s ostensible misstep. A number of creative defenses were proffered for the similarities, including one from Gov. Chris Christie stating that only 7% of Melania’s speech was identical to Mrs. Obama’s:
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) July 19, 2016
Another deflecting claim held that the speech given by Michelle Obama at the 2008 DNC was itself not entirely unique. According to Breitbart, Mrs. Obama lifted her speech from Saul Alinsky’s book Rules for Radicals:
Michelle Obama: “… the world as it should be.” In 2008, the aspiring First Lady was accused by bloggers of lifting lines for her DNC speech from Saul Alinsky. Alinsky wrote, in Rules for Radicals (emphasis added): “The standards of judgment must be rooted in the whys and wherefores of life as it is lived, the world as it is, not our wished-for fantasy of the world as it should be.” Michelle Obama said: “And Barack stood up that day, and he spoke words that have stayed with me ever since. He talked about ‘the world as it is‘ and ‘the world as it should be.’” (Perhaps [sic] Mr. Obama who left out the attribution.)
The “plagiarism” referenced by Breitbart amounted to two turns of phrase that Alinsky and Mrs. Obama both incorporated into a single sentence but used in different ways. Alinsky wrote:
The standards of judgment must be rooted in the whys and wherefores of life as it is lived, the world as it is, not our wished-for fantasy of the world as it should be.
By contrast, Mrs. Obama spoke in her 2008 speech of becoming more closely acquainted with a young Barack Obama and his desire to work toward the “world as it should be” rather than accept the “world as it is”:
And as our friendship grew and I learned more about Barack, he introduced me to work — the work that he’d done when he first moved to Chicago after college. You see, instead of heading to Wall Street, Barack went to work in neighborhoods that had been devastated by the closing of steel plants. Jobs dried up. And Barack was invited back to speak to people from those neighborhoods about how to rebuild their community.
And the people gathered there together that day were ordinary folks doing the best they could to build a good life. See, they were parents trying to get by from paycheck to paycheck; grandparents trying to get it together on a fixed income; men frustrated that they couldn’t support their families after jobs had disappeared. You see, those folks weren’t asking for a handout or a shortcut. See, they were ready to work. They wanted to contribute. They believed, like you and I believe, that America should be a place where you can make it if you try.
And Barack stood up that day, and he spoke words that have stayed with me ever since. He talked about the world as it is and the world as it should be. And he said that all too often we accept the distance between the two, and we settle for the world as it is, even when it doesn’t reflect our values and aspirations.
A simplistic comparison of Alinksy and Mrs. Obama’s uses of “the world as it is” and “the world as it should be” (phrases that were arguably exceedingly common in concept for policy speeches) suggested a surface likeness. But Alinsky’s purportedly plagiarized half-sentence was part of a passage about adopting a realistic approach to “the world as it is” versus “the world as it should be.” By contrast, Michelle Obama was paraphrasing her husband’s lamenting acceptance of “the world as it is” when “the world as it should be … reflect[ed] our values and aspirations” and was not expressing it as her own thought.
As such, the plagiarism claim applied to Mrs. Obama was weak on its face, given that it involved a mere eight common words supposedly lifted from the oft-invoked Alinsky and expressed a notion opposite to the one offered by Alinsky.