Critic's Notebook: Melania Trump (or Michelle Obama?) Dazzles at GOP Convention

Melania Trump RNC 2 - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

Donald Trump ceded the spotlight to his spouse, who unintentionally ceded the spotlight to Michelle Obama, in an evening otherwise devoted to scaring the hell out of the American people.

Well, that didn't go as planned.

The highlight of Monday's opening night of the Republican National Convention was supposed to be the speech by Donald Trump's wife, Melania. And it was, but not for the reasons that the campaign hoped for. It was only minutes after the evening ended that social media was abuzz with the allegation that the address by Trump's Slovenian-born model wife had liberally borrowed from the one given by Michelle Obama at the 2008 convention.

The charge was shocking, not only because Melania had bragged to Matt Lauer earlier in the day about mostly writing the speech herself, but also because it was so banal and cliché-ridden that it was hard to believe that Michelle had delivered a version of it eight years earlier. 

The portions that were wholly "original" were no more scintillating. After a short introductory portion in which she described her background (including her hardscrabble years working as a fashion model in Milan and Paris), she veered from one cliché to another: "If you want someone to fight for you and your country, he's your guy!' "There is a great deal of love in the Trump family!" "Donald gets things done!" By the time she informed us that her primary mission as first lady would be to "help children and women," even Trump's supporters were restless with boredom. She did, however, make one statement that no one could disagree with: "It would not be a Trump contest without excitement and drama."

Trump surprised everyone when he introduced her by barely saying anything at all, other than to describe her as "the next first lady of the United States." But his verbal restraint was overshadowed by a rock star entrance — backlit in silhouette and accompanied by Queen's "We Are the Champions" — that Elvis Presley would have found over-the-top. He also managed to shout the phrase "We're gonna win so big!" no less than three times.

Otherwise, the evening went off fairly predictably and without any major glitches, although such prominent speakers as rising Republican star Sen. Joni Ernst and Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (who followed Melania and was for a time considered a prime candidate for the VP slot) weren't even showcased by the major networks. That's just as well, since the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency mostly angrily fulminated while delivering such revelatory pronouncements as "war is not about bathrooms."

But when it comes to fulminating, no one could compete with former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who fulfilled the stereotypical characterization of New Yorkers by literally shouting every line of his speech. It was just as well that he didn't hit the stage until after 10 p.m., because any small children who accidentally tuned in would have been deeply frightened by the terrifying, bald-headed man who looked like he was about to suffer a stroke while bellowing such lines as: "Islamic extremist terrorists, we know who you are and we're coming to get you!" Decrying the fate of the four Americans killed at Benghazi, he even managed to make the phrase "may they rest in peace" sound like a curse.

"There's no next election. This is it!" Giuliani bellowed, essentially warning that the apocalypse was at hand. George Patton addressing his troops seemed warm and fuzzy by comparison.

The theme of the evening was "Make America Safe Again," and most of the speakers stayed firmly on topic, delivering one dire pronouncement after another. Among those on the roster were Marcus Luttrell, the Navy SEAL played by Mark Wahlberg in the film Lone Survivor, who talked about the need for greater support for the armed services and its veterans; David Clarke, the sheriff of Milwaukee County, who offered the crowd red meat by declaring, "Blue lives matter!"; and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who assured us, "Help is on the way."

The most powerful segment featured Pat Smith, the mother of one of the Americans killed at Benghazi. She delivered an anguished account of her son's death and the ensuing stonewalling by the government, declaring, "I blame Hillary Clinton personally for the death of my son!" While it could be argued that the RNC was exploiting her grief, there was no denying that her pronouncement that Hillary "deserves to be in stripes" had a visceral appeal to the crowd.

Four years ago the Republicans had Dirty Harry, albeit in the form of Clint Eastwood seemingly having an acid flashback and talking to a chair. This year they had … Chachi, or actor Scott Baio, who said that "being American doesn't mean getting free stuff" (yeah, like he ever turned down a gift bag). The other B-list celebrities on the bill were Duck Dynasty's Willie Robertson, wearing a stars-and-stripes bandana, who said, "No matter who you are, Donald Trump will have your back" (unless, of course, you're a loser) and former underwear model Antonio Sabato Jr., who announced "Donald Trump is for unity" (except for women, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, etc.).

What was most striking about the evening was not who was there, but who wasn't. Besides all of the Bushes, John McCain, Lindsay Graham, etc., also missing were such prominent Ohio Republicans as Sen. Rob Portman, who decided to go kayaking instead, and Governor John Kasich.

But then again, this was an event that even a rabbi, namely Jared Kushner's (Trump's son-in-law), couldn't find it in his heart to bless.