Opinion

Melania and Michelle: Sisters in the American Dream

Expropriating first lady's words shows America may not be so divided

Michelle Obama, seen here at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, has much in common with first lady hopeful Melania Trump, more than many Donald Trump supporters realize, writes Mary C. Curtis. (Roll Call file photo)

It is embarrassing that portions of Melania Trump’s opening night speech repeated not only the themes but the very words spoken by Michelle Obama in 2008 at the Democratic National Convention — not, however, for the reason most would think. (Though you should expect at least one sloppy speechwriter’s head to roll.) No, the real reason the campaign’s public gaffe stings is that it contradicts the presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump’s message that America is a “divided crime scene .”  

If the African-American first lady whose journey took her from the South Side of Chicago to Princeton to Harvard Law and the White House and the Slovenian-American immigrant , model/designer and perhaps future first lady have so much in common, that means the Trump candidacy has little reason to exist. We don’t need a “law and order” candidate to get us in shape. Maybe we aren’t at each other’s throats after all.  

No wonder Republican convention-goers are so mad. They have nothing to be mad about. Of course, there’s always Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama, all they have done, have not done or are imagined to have done.  

But when one elegant first lady hopeful speaks the words of the elegant first lady who has represented the country for the last seven years and counting, and the sentiments seem equally authentic, it goes a long way toward negating the hair-on-fire fear-mongering that filled the first day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. That goes for the vein-popping Rudy Giuliani ’s apocalyptic declaration that “there is no more time for us left to revive our great country” to the more ear-friendly warning from Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst that "it's time to stand up and fight for the security of our children, our grandchildren, and ourselves."  

Contrast that to the “America is already great” message shared eight years apart by two women of different parties and backgrounds.  

[ Why Obama's Vision of 'One American Family' Matters ]  

"From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect," Melania Trump said. "They taught and showed me morals in their daily life. That is the lesson that I continue to pass along to our son. And we need to pass those lessons on to many generations to follow because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”  

"Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you're going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don't know them, and even if you don't agree with them," Michelle Obama said. "And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generation. Because we want our children — and all children in this nation — to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”  

Putting aside the fact of who said it first, the words paint a positive and inspiring endorsement of the promise of a country that — despite its flaws — is a lure to people from around the globe.  

While Donald Trump rails against certain immigrants, his wife sounds just like so many who have made a home here, some serving in the military, opening businesses and becoming neighbors. Melania Trump’s immigrant-made-good story spoke of the best of America. It’s beyond ironic that Trump made his bones questioning the birthplace of the born-in-Hawaii president of the United States and started his successful primary campaign with accusations against illegal criminal “Mexicans.”  

[ The Deal Donald Trump Couldn't Close ]  

Michelle Obama speaks of her hard work, against a backdrop of inequality, addressing young people at schools and community centers, many of them African-American and minority children from modest circumstances very much like her own. Don’t use challenges as an excuse, she says. Just try harder. For her efforts, she has been characterized as “angry” and worse.  

It wasn’t Laura or Barbara Bush whose words were approximated by Melania Trump, though. The semantic standard on the night when it counted was Michelle Obama.  

Unlike the rest of the convention’s Day One speakers, the evening’s star, dressed in white, offered not red meat but a bouquet to the woman the folks in the hall can’t wait to see move out of the White House. The fact that Michelle’s words flowed so comfortably from Melania's mouth is surely not what the base expected or wanted.  

It might mean that the world is not coming to an end, and that we are, as President Obama has said, "one American family."  

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.