Imagine you’re Justin Trudeau’s speechwriter and you’re on the phone with his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeu, who will soon give a speech in support of her husband. She says that one of the people she has always liked is Laureen Harper, Stephen Harper’s wife.
Over the phone, she reads some passages from Ms. Harper’s speeches as examples. You write them down and later include some of the phrasing in the draft that ultimately becomes her final speech.
All hell breaks loose when your plagiarism is discovered.
But the Liberal Party chairman denies everything: “There was no cribbing of Laureen Harper’s speech. To think that Sophie would be cribbing Laureen Harper’s words is crazy.”
Then a Liberal Premier wades in with: “Ninety-three percent of the speech is completely different.”
When this Wall of Denial starts to crumble, you offer to resign. But Mr. Trudeau refuses to accept your resignation. He says that people make innocent mistakes and that we learn and grow from these experiences.
So you write an online apology saying: “I did not check Mrs. Harper’s speeches. This was my mistake and I feel terrible for the chaos I have caused Sophie and the Trudeaus, as well as Mrs. Harper. No harm was meant.”
The scenario of one political leader’s spouse claiming she admires the spouse of her partner’s sworn enemy and would like that person’s ideas incorporated into the most important speech she will ever give. Well, it practically quantum-shifts from fiction to fantasy to impossibility in this one sentence.
It’s a bit like saying Mohammed Ali would quote from Sonny Listen. Or Mick Jagger would sing a Beatles tune — without admitting it. Or Barack Obama, short on ideas, decides to steal some from Vladimir Putin for his next attack on… Vladimir Putin.
I write speeches for executives and politicians, and the idea that my client would ever say they so admire their arch-rival that they would like me to incorporate some of their most memorable ideas into their next speech where the stakes are so high that the future of the world is up for grabs. It beggars belief.
And yet, the apology that Trump speechwriter Meredith McIver offered at the Republican Convention feels vaguely sincere and truthful.
I asked myself how that could possibly be, when we all know both the tweet and her speechwriter’s confession are as false as a chocolate-covered four-year-old saying to Daddy with innocent eyes: “What chocolate?”
Then this week it happened again. Well, not exactly “it.” But Melania Trump’s second adventure in public dishonesty came on Wednesday when the media reported that she’d lied about earning her degree in architecture from the University of Ljubljana in her native Slovenia.
This time, the Trump campaign didn’t deny it. They didn’t even bother excusing it, or making a young staffer walk the plank for doing it. They simply took it down, following a tweet from America’s possibly future First Lady: “The website in question was created in 2012 and has been removed because it does not accurately reflect my current business and professional interests.
This double-header of cocky dishonesty reminded me of the last time a demagogue came close to tearing America apart.
It was in the early 1950s when Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy launched his witch-hunt for communists and homosexuals in the American government and Hollywood.
He sparked the age of McCarthyism, for which Wikepedia offers up this handy definition: “Today, the term is used by critics of McCarthy in reference to what they consider demagogic, reckless and unsubstantiated accusations, as well as public attacks on the character or patriotism of political opponents.”
McCarthy was eventually censured in 1954 by the U.S. Senate. But what really brought him down was a counter-attack by Joseph Nye Welch, the U.S. Army’s chief legal representative on McCarthy’s investigation into alleged communists in the Army.
When McCarthy wildly accused one of Welch’s Boston law partners of being a mouthpiece of the Communist Party, Welch replied: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness …”
McCarthy carried on. Welch interrupted him again:
“Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
With this, the Senate gallery broke into applauseand the hearing was recessed.
America’s real question now should be: “Joseph Nye Welch, where are you now that we need you — again?”