On Monday, Melania Trump announced the cause she will champion as First Lady, and there was a gap of maaaaybe a few minutes before the criticism started rolling in like a freight train. Mrs. Trump told a Rose Garden crowd that included her husband that she would make it her mission to fight for children, specifically for their physical and emotional well-being, for safe social media use, and to protect them from opioid abuse.
The name of her campaign? “Be Best.”
And then the beasts of social and mainstream media descended. First, there was criticism over the grammatical awkwardness of that name. Then there was the seemingly impossible broadness of her goals. Then, of course, the uncomfortable irony of battling online bullying while her husband is known for behavior on Twitter that qualifies under that label. There was also the small matter of a pamphlet that appeared to have been copied wholesale from
But hold on a sec. Before we jump into the shark pit, perhaps it would be useful to take a step back and examine the job that Melania seems to have fallen into. What is actually expected of first ladies, how does Melania stack up, and is the role overdue for a shakeup?
“They’re basically expected to be everything to everyone,” says Kate Andersen Brower.
A journalist and the best-selling author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies, Brower spent years covering the White House and has interviewed multiple First Ladies. She says there are incredible expectations placed on the women married to America’s presidents. They are to be a model mother and wife, a beauty and fashion symbol, a savvy politician able to navigate life in Washington, and to top it off, the champion of a substantive social issue. And all of this without a paycheck or even an official job description.
Of course, there have been many First Ladies who were chomping at the bit to tackle the political side of the job. Brower recently sat down with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and was struck by Mrs. Carter’s eagerness to jump into the political trenches.
“You could just see her face light up when I asked her about campaigning,” says Brower. “She was someone who just loved that side of it. Melania is a stark contrast to a lot of these women who really loved it.”
Indeed, much has been made of Mrs. Trump’s reluctance to fill her new post. A piece in Vanity Fair quotes a longtime friend of the First Lady describing Melania’s attitude towards the position: “She didn’t want this, come hell or high water.” Sure, she knew who she was marrying back in 2005, but she didn’t know that in a little more than a decade, he’d be president.
That said, she isn’t the first president’s wife to need some time out of the public eye. As Brower points out, Jackie Kennedy spent her weekends at her family’s horse farm in Virginia, and Bess Truman dodged the spotlight with frequent visits to her hometown of Independence, MO. But Melania seems to take spotlight dodging to a whole other level. She was all but absent from the campaign trail, it took her an unheard of five months to move into the White House, and her first public speech — about cyberbullying given during a visit to the U.N. — came almost a year into her husband’s first term.
She’s definitely doing things her own way, but maybe the fact that she’s breaking stereotypes is a good thing.
“It’s very old-fashioned,” says Brower of our collective vision of what a First Lady should be. “I wanted to see Bill Clinton as the First Gentleman. You can bet he’d be allowed to do what he wanted, though granted, he was the president.”
Indeed, the position could use a little shaking up. Though there is no official rule book, First Ladies are expected to give up their careers and take on the domestic tasks of the White House. Michelle Obama was a Harvard educated lawyer who gave up her career to step into a more domestic role — albeit the most high profile one in the country — and be content with hosting the Easter egg roll and the annual Christmas Party, or organizing state dinners. And while Melania didn’t quite give up an active career — she hasn’t modeled in years — who knows if she’d have been willing to step off the runway if she’d still been working.
With the unveiling of her “Be Best” campaign, she’s proved once again that she’s willing to stick up for what she wants.
“I’ve been in touch with individuals who work closely with Melania, and she was advised to focus on opioids,” says Brower, “But she was insistent on cyberbullying, even though her staff realized it would leave her open to criticism.”
Though First Ladies are relatively free to select the cause they wish to champion, most work with a large staff of 15 to 30 people that aids in the shaping and focusing of their campaign. Michelle Obama’s chose obesity, both of the Bushes focused on literacy, Nancy Reagan fought drug addiction, and Lady Bird Johnson brought the Highway Beautification Act into existence. Melania’s “Be Best” campaign lacks the incisive focus of previous First Lady causes, and part of the reason for that may be her small staff. While Michelle Obama had 16 staffers in her first year in office, Melania had only four. And the limited staff Mrs. Trump has have not benefited from the wisdom of the outgoing First Lady.
“Laura Bush and Michelle Obama were friends and probably still are,” says Brower. “I interviewed both of their chiefs of staff, and they could not stop talking about how great the other one was.”
This passing of the torch between staffs and wives is traditional and expected, but it never happened between Mrs. Obama and Mrs. Trump. Whatever the reason, Melania entered the office less prepared than her predecessors, a woman with no experience as a politician’s wife and no true mentor.
But for all her inexperience and unwillingness to leap into the role, people still seem to like her. Melania’s approval ratings are currently at 57 percent, while her husband’s sit at a less impressive 42 percent.
Perhaps the American public feels a tinge of sympathy for the woman that must stand at the side of the tornado that currently occupies the White House. It can’t be easy.
(Photos by Mark Wilson + Alex Wong/Getty)