If voters tuned in to the first night of the Republican National Convention hoping for a better sense of Donald Trump as a private man, they were likely disappointed.
Melania Trump, the presumptive nominee’s wife and Monday’s headliner, delivered a lot of boilerplate about Donald’s greatness but none of the humanizing anecdotes that typically distinguish a speech from the person who knows the candidate best. Mark it as a missed opportunity for the Republican nominee to soften an image now drawing record disapproval ratings from voters. (Update: There may be a more immediate problem with Melania Trump’s address. It appears one section may have been lifted from Michelle Obama’s convention speech in 2008 — or at the least is strikingly similar.)
There will be other chances. To an unusual degree, Trump is leaning on his immediate family to pad the primetime program in Cleveland this week. All four of his grown children remain on deck to offer their testimonials about the candidate. Each has a lifetime of material to scour for stories revealing Trump’s softer side as a parent.
In general, the bar for a speech by a candidate’s spouse is set appropriately low. After all, in many cases, they are reluctant recruits to public life, shoved into the limelight by their significant other’s ambition. Such is the case for Melania Trump. Born and raised in Slovenia, she spoke several languages before she learned English, as her accent attests, and she has made herself scarce on the campaign trail. Considering that, by any reasonable measure, she did an impressive job delivering her speech to thousands in the Quicken Loans Arena and millions more beyond it.
But its content could have gone a lot further toward describing the man behind the bluster. Instead, the closest we got to an insight into the real estate mogul from his wife is that he’s been “concerned about our country as long as I have known him,” and that in politics as in business, “he does not give up.” Her husband, she added, is “tough when he has to be, but he’s also kind and fair and caring. This kindness is not always noted. But it is there for all to see. That is one reason I fell in love with him to begin with.”
In fact, that kindness is not so readily apparent. As The Washington Post has documented, Trump has a long history of making extravagant pledges to charities that he’s categorically failed to honor. One or two affecting stories about times she’s seen her husband extend himself to people in need would have gone a lot further than Melania’s flat attestation to his warmheartedness.
And polls show that Trump may need to call on Melania as a character witness. Hillary Clinton’s campaign is already using his history of disrespectful comments about women as grist for attack ads. The presumptive Democratic nominee enjoys the largest gender gap in recorded history, with a recent Pew Research poll showing her leading among women by 24 points. That’s twice the margin by which President Obama carried female voters in his 2012 reelection.