Melania Trump’s convention nightmare highlights the mixed history of First Lady speeches

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Even for all the storms that Donald Trump's campaign has weathered, the current hubhub about Melania Trump plagiarizing a speech by First Lady Michelle Obama—of all people—feels a little different.

With campaign staffers skirting blame for the incident, and some even reportedly throwing Melania under the bus for it, the stakes feel higher, because so much was riding on her pulling off that rare public moment without a hitch. In recent years, the leading candidates' spousal address has come to be an important part of the overall nominating process, even as it holds an uncomfortably sexist overtone of men parading their wives around to score political points. Still, the moments are designed to humanize the political figure, and to show that the candidate lives up to the family values they (typically) give lip service to.

But as Melania's speech has proven, the spousal appearance can backfire. Some sources are reporting that it has turned into a "save my marriage" situation for the Trumps. Who knows what it means for the campaign's sloppy infrastructure.


In the book Michelle Obama: First Lady, First Rhetor, which explores the First Lady's public persona and speeches, author Tammy Vigil states that the spousal address has only been a "central feature" of party conventions since 1992, when Barbara Bush took the stage at the Republican National Convention.

The only spouse to have not made a lengthy address since then was Tipper Gore in 2000, who only narrated a video about her husband, then-Democratic nominee Al Gore, and then later introduced him for his nomination acceptance speech. That impersonal approach proved ruinous for the Gore campaign. The awkward kiss that the couple shared on stage after Gore's acceptance speech was basically all that anyone can remember about her at the convention.

Like today's controversy, it dominated the news cycle at the time. People already looked at Gore as a robot, and the kiss felt a little cold, forced, and calculated. The couple later separated.

The first wife of a potential president to address delegates at a national convention was Eleanor Roosevelt in 1940, writes Vigil. Her speech called for unity in the Democratic Party and in the nation, and was credited as helping husband Franklin Roosevelt win his third term as president. Still, it would take over 50 years for the next First Lady-in-waiting to speak at length. When former President Bill Clinton addresses the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia next week, he'll be the first man to do so as a possible First Husband.

Spouses did sometimes make small appearances. Video of President Richard Nixon's wife Patricia walking on stage at the 1972 RNC is…odd from a post-Watergate perspective. She stands on stage for over five minutes, just soaking up applause. She barely gets any words out—best summed up as, "Thank you."

Traditionally, the speeches have served to introduce potential First Ladies to the world, and to highlight what their place might be in the White House.


In a preview to how she would take a lead role in international diplomacy, Teresa Heinz Kerry opened her speech at the 2004 DNC by speaking in Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Italian, while highlighting the fact that she grew up in Mozambique. Elizabeth Dole, speaking to the 1996 RNC, wandered into the crowd to give her speech, and she spent her whole address sharing anecdotes about her husband, and how she would always support him. She would be a First Lady standing behind her husband, yet right alongside the people.

Unlike Barbara Bush at the RNC, Hillary Clinton didn't speak at the DNC in 1992, the year that the tradition arguably started, but she did in 1996. (Some suggest this was because she wasn't very popular in the 1992 campaign.) Laura Bush would go on to give a memorable speech in 2004 about education. And of course, Michelle Obama's 2008 DNC speech—the one Melania Trump plagiarized—helped win her a loyal, devoted following that continues through today.


It's an odd—arguably sexist—tradition of having to wheel out your spouse as part of your resume for a job. But a recent Rasmussen survey found that Americans care less about a candidate's spouse than they did in 2008. A full 52% said that they didn't care about the spouse, compared to 38% in 2008.

Interestingly, though, Republicans place "slightly more importance" to a candidate's spouse that Democrats, the survey found. The jury is still out on whether plagiarizing a section of a speech that was talking about ethics and hard work will count against Trump. With this campaign and this party, it's anyone's guess.


Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.

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