He dreamed that GOP delegates in the hall would respond to him the way they did to Ronald Reagan and Teddy Kennedy when they addressed national conventions after losing their party’s nominations in 1976 and 1980. The palpable sense that maybe-we-should-have nominated-this-guy-instead.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas spent Wednesday imagining that sentiment surging through the convention hall. Instead, Cruz got himself booed off stage last night in Cleveland, the first time that’s happened to a major presidential candidate at his party’s convention since the moderate Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York was jeered out of San Francisco’s Cow Palace by conservative Republicans in 1964. Yet another surreal moment in one of the strangest political seasons in modern politics.
“At least Trump is a genuine fake,” says Aram Bakshian Jr., who lead the speechwriting shop in Ronald Reagan’s White House. “Cruz is every bit as slimy—and sanctimonious on top of it all. Hard to imagine him mesmerizing the delegates. Though, egomaniac that he is, I’m sure that’s exactly what he had in mind.”
I needed to hear from someone who could put what’s unfolding in Cleveland in perspective. Bakshian helped lead the scripting of seven Republican conventions. His first was during the summer of 1972 in Miami Beach, prepping the GOP for prime time during Richard Nixon’s renomination convention. But this year he’s taking a powder, saying that he prefers waiting out the campaign season at the Hay Adams bar across from the White House.
“I’m not even sure I can bring myself to vote for Trump in November,” Bakshian says from Washington D.C. “The further I stay away from him, the easier it should be.” Still, he’s kept up with the TV coverage.
Watching the convention from the delegate floor and also up in the press boxes, I wondered what it must be like to run interference backstage at The Q here in Cleveland, putting on a live show for an arena audience of 45,000 and millions at home watching on TV.
“Producing or editing good speech material with timekeepers, speakers, speakers’ staffs, convention officials, and a nominee’s staff—they’re all trying to put their oars in,” he says.
Adding to the nightmare is how to make elected officials such as Speaker Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy exciting and charismatic. “There are two problems with that,” he says. “Most of them just aren’t. And in this particular convention, the Trump loyalists and the nominee himself have been badmouthing them since the race for the nomination began. For this GOP leadership, this audience was a hanging jury egged on by a hanging judge. There’s no cosmetic fix.”
As for the flap over whether Melania Trump may have plagiarized a speech given by Michelle Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Bakshian doesn’t buy the story coming from the Trump campaign that this was an innocent mistake. “It’s mathematically impossible to accidentally reproduce verbatim whole sentences and passages from a single source in one speech,” he says. “You have to be deliberately copying it.”
Bakshian believes one of two things happened: either the speechwriter employed by the Trump Organization, Meredith McIver, stole the lines outright, or Melania Trump said she liked Mrs. Obama’s language and wanted it in her speech, too. “At which point McIver, rather than warn against it, obeyed and cooperated in the plagiarism, because that’s what it was. Period.”
On Wednesday, McIver, a former ballerina, released a statement apologizing for the speech storm. She said she tendered her resignation but that the Trumps rejected it. “Mr. Trump told me that people make innocent mistakes and that we learn and grow from those experiences,” she said in her statement.
All of it takes Bakshian back to 1988 when then-Senator Joe Biden was caught copying the speeches of British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock while campaigning for president. It ruined Biden’s run and sent him packing back to the Senate. But he lived to fight another day.
“Biden wasn’t that important, he’s always been popular with the liberal media, and he had plenty of time for it too cool off,” recalls Bakshian. “Which makes this much more different than what occurred with Melania’s address. This was her first–and probably most important–political speech, the one introducing her to a public that didn’t know her. She–or whoever did it–turned a pushover speaking opportunity into a PR disaster.”
The most impressive speech so far? Donald Trump Jr., on Tuesday night. “He delivered a good speech well–son loves father, says father is great guy. Hearts and flowers, applause from the faithful,” says Bakshian. “But it will have little if any impact on the general public, especially those who look at Don, Jr., and see qualities of civility, articulation, and general good behavior they find wanting in his father. And it’s the father who’s running.”