The evening called for formalwear and a dose of self-deprecation. Donald Trump, wearing white tie and tails, delivered both at the 2016 Al Smith Memorial Dinner. The candidate gave a speech and, according to the tradition at the charity event, roasted himself and his own for the laughs of the elite New York crowd.
Trump deadpanned that he knew that the news media were unfair and biased, adding that he had proof. "Michelle Obama gives a speech and everyone loves it, it's fantastic," Trump said that night, a couple of months after the Republican National Convention that nominated him for president. “They think she's absolutely great. My wife, Melania, gives the exact same speech, and people get on her case!”
That’s when the room erupted because there was truth in the kidding. The press loved the referenced Michelle speech because it was heartfelt and original. But the press had not loved the Melania speech because it was plagiarized.
Whether it was Melania or an aide who had stolen material from her predecessor four years earlier, the current first lady stole the show on night two of the 2020 Republican convention. This time, she did so undeniably in her own words. It would have been difficult to plagiarize anyway. The main topics: her own immigrant story and love of America and life in the time of coronavirus.
A onetime supermodel who never has a bad hair day, the White House hostess marched in high heels into the newly re-landscaped Rose Garden clad in an olive-green designer jacket with square shoulders, polished brass buttons and a cinched belt at the waist. In that uniform, Melania Trump did something rare for this administration. She delivered a message of empathy and understanding.
"I want to acknowledge the fact that since March, our lives have changed drastically,” she said at the top of the speech. “The invisible enemy, COVID-19, swept across our beautiful country and impacted all of us.
"My deepest sympathy goes out to everyone who has lost a loved one and my prayers are with those who are ill or suffering. I know many people are anxious and some feel helpless,” she added. “I want you to know you are not alone.”
It was the most significant moment of the night now that political programing has to be done in social isolation. When Mrs. Trump first addressed a Republican convention, it was in a packed arena teeming with party faithful. This time she spoke before a few dozen hand-picked supporters in a historic White House venue that had remained untouched since the 1960s until the first lady oversaw its modernization.
Some viewers were impressed, even those who didn’t expect to be. Her address, former Obama adviser David Axelrod wrote on Twitter, was “head spinning.” Axelrod did get in a dig, however. Her uplifting message, he said, was “at odds with her husband’s approach.” That’s fair comment, but other Democrats were less courteous, apparently not bothering even to listen to her words. Comedian Stephen Colbert joked that the first lady was only speaking as a condition of a “prenup.” Actress Bette Midler was even nastier, mocking the multi-lingual Slovenian-American as an immigrant who “still can’t speak English.”
But Melania Trump was aiming her remarks at elite political activists who hate her husband -- and also at Americans who’ve heard such attacks for four years but wonder if there’s more to this man than caricature. She promised that the president would "not stop fighting until there is an effective treatment or vaccine available to everyone." She insisted that, if given a second term, her husband would “not rest until he has done all he can to take care of everyone impacted by this terrible pandemic.”
It was a rare speech from a woman who prefers to do her work behind the scenes. But as Trump sat in the front row, she made her case for why he deserved another term as president. She did not shy away from the most controversial topics in American politics. Some might say she leaned into them.
“Like all of you, I have reflected on the racial unrest in our country. It is a harsh reality that we are not proud of parts of our history,” she said. “I encourage people to focus on our future while still learning from our past. You must remember that today we are all one community, comprised of many races, religions, and ethnicities. Our diverse and storied history is what makes our country strong, and yes, we still have so much to learn from one another.”
Like Jill Biden, who delivered a well-received speech at last week’s virtual Democratic convention, the first lady eschewed overt political attacks. Mrs. Biden was practically the only Democrat to do so.
“I don't want to use this precious time attacking the other side,” she said. “Because as we saw last week, that kind of talk only serves to divide the country further. I'm here because we need my husband to be our president and commander-in-chief for four more years.”
Her husband, she insisted, is “what is best for our country.”
Coronavirus didn’t dominate everything, and Melania offered moments of hope as well, repeatedly referencing her “Be Best” campaign, discussing the dangers of social media for children, and the challenges of parenting. Near the end of her remarks, she spoke about Americans struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, people who may find pandemic lockdowns particularly threatening to their mental well-being -- and she made an appeal to the media to help:
“I want to take this moment to encourage the media to focus even more on the nation’s drug crisis,” she said. “Addiction has touched every part of our society in some way. Now more than ever, we have programs and medicine to combat it. We just need to talk about it openly, and you, the media, have the platform to make that happen.”
Melania also offered another unique perspective rare to residents of the White House. She talked about being an immigrant and then a naturalized citizen.
“My parents worked very hard to ensure our family could not only live and prosper in America, but also contribute to a nation that allows for people to arrive with a dream and make it reality. I want to take the moment to thank my mother and father for all they have done for our family. It is because of you that I am standing here today,” she said.
“I arrived in the United States when I was 26 years old. Living and working in the land of opportunity was a dream come true, but I wanted more. I wanted to be a citizen. After 10 years of work, I studied for the test in 2006 and became an American citizen,” she added.
Her citizenship, she concluded, was “one of the proudest moments in my life.” It was a speech unlike any other offered at either the Democratic or Republican convention. And irrespective of whether she had help with the writing, the material was unique and undeniably hers.