Afraid of ghosts

I gotta say one more thing about the Melania Trump plagiarism kerfuffle. Why is everyone so afraid of ghosts? (The writing kind, that is.)

There’s nothing wrong with hiring a ghostwriter. Lots of people do it. Even Ronald Reagan, “the Great Communicator,” had writers on staff. We don’t criticize President Obama for having speechwriters—and he has allowed his to be very public about their contributions. People expect the president to be doing more important things—saving us from disaster, leading negotiations, pardoning turkeys, meeting with the winning World Series team (shoulda been my Mets). They don’t expect him to be hunched over a laptop at 3am, sweating out welcoming remarks for the next State Dinner.

Hiring a speechwriter doesn’t mean you’re incompetent. It means you’re smart about how you use your time. People hire ghostwriters for the same reason I hire house painters:

  1. It’s not their core competency
  2. They’d rather spend their time doing other things
  3. They’re afraid of ladders (okay, that one may be unique to my house painter list)

And even people who might make the effort to write their own book or magazine article are smart enough to recognize that a speech is a very different animal indeed. So bring in an expert, talk to the writer about your ideas, and after you get that first draft go back to the writer and adjust. That’s how the process works.

Of course you want to “speak from the heart”—I may need to find a new phrase for authenticity; that one seems to be turning into a euphemism for Donald Trump’s loose cannon oratory. Okay, you want to express your ideas in your own way. Especially if you’re not a practiced speaker, you want to make sure you don’t sound stilted. So you think, Who knows me better than me? And you do it yourself.

Big mistake.

I painted my last house by myself—climbing ladders and everything. Between spackling, sanding, taping, and painting it took me months and for what I spent on post-painting massage and chiropractic I could have hired Michelangelo to do the work. I was in a world of hurt. I suspect Melania Trump feels a similar non-buyer’s remorse.

And it all could have been avoided so easily if they’d just found a writer Melania trusted to work with her. But for some reason, the idea that someone whose previous core competency had been walking and pouting at the same time would need help to write a speech—oh, no, we can’t have people thinking that. I mean, the woman has posed wearing nothing more than a thong and a gun and they think working with a ghostwriter would damage her reputation?

I’m sad to think that the lesson people will take from this is “You can’t hire a ghostwriter if you want to appear sincere.” A good ghost can help concentrate and focus your thoughts so your message resonates more effectively while your true personality shines through. Assuming, that is, that you have thoughts and a personality to begin with. If you don’t…well, that’s scary.

Ink by the barrel: plagiarism and the press

Nothing has been able to derail the traveling circus that is Trump’s presidential campaign. Violence at his rallies? The story seems to blow over in a day. Threats to fire any members of the judiciary who disagree with him? [Crickets.]

But the story of Melania Trump’s plagiarized convention speech—that has legs. If there’s one topic members of the media feel passionately about, it’s plagiarizing. So you can threaten to deport people until the proverbial cows come home, but steal another writer’s work and you’re asking for trouble.

It reminds me of an expression I learned from Warren Buffett—though someone else may have said it first—”Never pick a fight with somebody who buys ink by the barrel.” (Note how I both sourced the quotation and allowed for the possibility that the source I cite may be incorrect. That’s how it’s done, folks.)

This is far from the Trump campaign’s worst gaffe, but it does expose many of the campaign’s weaknesses. I can’t imagine a major speaker at a political convention—heck, even at a big corporate event—who’d be allowed onstage without having several people vet the speech for consistency of message, at least. They haven’t let Melania say more than a few sentences at other events—yet they let her take the podium at the Convention with no oversight, no rehearsal? Nobody outside the family heard that speech before she gave it? With any other candidate I would say that’s hard to believe. But Trump’s campaign has been literally unbelievable, so who knows?

Today they trotted out a sacrificial lamb named McIver. But—whoops—now they’re not just in trouble with the press; they’ve run afoul of the Federal Elections Commission for using a corporate staffer rather than a campaign staffer to write the speech. The New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza wraps up the growing mess here.

So if McIver wrote the speech, Trump is guilty of allowing his company to make illegal campaign contributions; if Melania wrote the speech she’s guilty of plagiarism. Either way, the Trump campaign seems in desperate need of adult supervision. See Josh Bernoff’s wonderful explanation: he says it’s a classic case of Hanlon’s Razor – a phenomenon I’d never heard of:

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

I’ll let “Melania” have the last word, via Stephen Colbert.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to return to my vacation. Please—no more writing-related news from Cleveland.