Recently, I ran across a photograph of former First Lady Grace Coolidge with her pet raccoon, Rebecca, at the White House Easter Egg Roll. The year was 1927.
First Lady Melania Trump showcased neither her pet nor her pet issue during last month’s Easter Egg roll because she doesn’t have a pet or pet issue. She showed little interest in the event’s planning too. This 127 year-old White House tradition is one of style points, which represent an effort to remind Americans the stately house belongs to all of us, to the People. We are thrown a party on our grandest lawn, a token thank you from the First Family. Say what you will about tradition, this is one beloved by many. And it’s been the First Lady’s purview.
So far, not much has become this First Lady’s purview. She opted to stay in New York to avoid disruption for her son during the school year. We—taxpayers—foot the bill to guard their palatial golden penthouse in midtown Manhattan. We pony up for his and her jets to Mar-a-Lago. She showed up at the egg roll and read a story to some children. She just visibly nudged the President to place hand on chest for the National Anthem. She hasn’t yet attended or hosted many events and she hasn’t said much in public. She’s more a visual thus far than a personality, although my sense is she hasn’t captivated America’s imagination enough to be become an enigma. Maybe we like our First Ladies to be more up front: Barbara was such a mom, Laura a librarian, Hillary a brain, and Michelle was kind of everything—with the best arms thrown in.
The First Lady is, arguably, a difficult role. The First Lady has been co-proprietor in the Presidency, yet she isn’t paid. Her office is on the other side of White House, the East Wing, removed from certain weightiness, and yet she’s been obligated to fulfill a particularly important ambassadorship without that exact title. For some, that’s mom-in-chief, but it’s also about elegance and grace and ease and advocacy, depending on the First Lady. To fulfill her duties, she receives a support staff—and presumably enjoys the position’s perks and possibilities. Arguably, the role is exploitative, as we might extend to so much unpaid work wives and mothers have long performed.
Despite her reluctance to inhabit many responsibilities of First Lady, Melania did file a lawsuit for $150 million. The suit asserted that unflattering press about her early murky modeling career hampered her ability to profit off her position as First Lady. I suggest that she consider having her $2.9 million settlement go to the costs of keeping her in Manhattan for the remainder of the school year. Nearly $3 million would be a token of thanks from her to the American public. It’d also be a gesture that she doesn’t mean to literally sit atop the world awaiting the opportunity to cash in.
To reiterate, First Lady is a tradition—and Melania is under no obligation to conform. Under the heading of tradition, first ladies have advocated for many causes, from wildflowers by highways to kids using libraries or achieving physical fitness, to openness about addiction, bringing their passions and compassion to light. Melania has demonstrated no passions and no compassion thus far. And somehow, the question of what she brings—or refuses to bring—to the role seems to be off-limits. And so is the issue of how we feel about her grab for an untarnished reputation in order to safeguard her personal, now First Lady brand.
In this era, we envision running for the presidency as a joint decision. Whether the couple has a very traditional marriage or a more modern version, we trust the First Marriage to be a partnership. We tried to imagine how the role might change if the First Lady were a dude, and a former President at that. We could opine that Bill wouldn’t have chosen a china pattern, and no one would have faulted him for that. If he wanted to choose one, he sure could have. The mold has been difficult to break; to change tradition is hard. Ask Hillary. A lawyer who’d advocated for children’s rights throughout her career, she worked to broker a more equitable health care plan. She was vilified. By gosh, she didn’t bake cookies.
Where is Melania’s platter of freaking cookies? Shouldn’t we hold Melania to some standard that approximates others who’ve been in her position?
The way I see it, Melania’s expressed desire via litigation not to mar the commercial potential of her position is immoral. At the very least, in order to gain the prestige of First Lady, you should do the work.