Melania Trump facing questions over role as First Lady

President's wife dogged by criticism since Ivana Trump suggested earlier this month that she was failing in her duties and betraying obvious discomfort

Dario Fazzi
Thursday 19 October 2017 11:56
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First Lady Melania Trump
First Lady Melania Trump

At times, Donald Trump's presidency resembles an opéra bouffe - a comic opera with simple wording and plenty of farce. The act on stage last week centred on two female protagonists, First Lady Melania Trump, the ethereal and powerful heroine, and Trump's first wife Ivana, the villain challenging her leadership and status.

Misleading and partly senseless as it was, Ivana's claim that she was the real first lady hid an important message between the lines, sarcastically revealed by Ivana herself in a rapid series of rhetorical questions. “Would I straighten up the White House in 14 days? Absolutely. Can I give the speech for 45 minutes without [a] teleprompter? Absolutely. Can I read a contract? Can I negotiate? Can I entertain? Absolutely.”

In her rant against Melania, Ivana struck one of the many raw nerves of the administration: The difficulties that the First Lady has encountered in fulfilling her traditional duties. Ivana spotlighted Melania's uneasiness with ceremonies, her difficulty in stirring the imagination of her audience, her struggle with the complex machinery of her office. Because they are crucial parts of public diplomacy, Trump's uneasiness in these areas reveal her failings as a first lady - and the challenges of the administration more broadly.

Does Melania Trump have a body double?

In the modern era, First Ladies have played three primary roles. First, they share unique perspectives with the president. It was Betty Ford who used the expression “pillow talks” to refer to the informal discussions she had at night with her husband, during which she tried to relay her own points of view on policy. President Andrew Johnson, according to historian Robert Winston, consulted his wife more often than any fellow statesman. Similarly, Michelle Obama acted as a driving force behind many of her husband's most difficult choices, such as the open support for same-sex marriage or the drafting of ambitious health-care and immigration reform agendas.

Second, First Ladies usually advocate for social causes. Eleanor Roosevelt incessantly travelled across the country to observe the consequences of the Great Depression: Unemployment, starvation, poverty. On several occasions she condemned racial segregation as not only immoral but also inconsistent with the most cherished American values, diverging from her husband's necessarily pragmatic political agenda. Lady Bird Johnson pioneered environmental protection and global beautification. Pat Nixon encouraged young volunteerism. Betty Ford fiercely supported women's rights. Barbara Bush was a staunch supporter of global education and childhood literacy.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, First Ladies have performed a delicate function as public diplomats abroad. For this reason, they have needed a complex set of personal skills as much as political shrewdness. Among the 19th century First Ladies, Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Monroe (who in Paris was dubbed la belle Américaine) and Louisa Adams acquired reputations as the most-travelled women of their times. In 1877, Julia Grant accompanied her husband Ulysses on a 28-month trip around the world during which she dined with royalty, breakfasted with intellectuals and drank tea with businessmen.

These journeys contributed to spreading the first images of US women abroad and to redefining women's public role and sphere of action. In this regard, late-19th century First Ladies represented women who were concerned with substantive matters such as social, economic and political changes, and the rise of the first wave of feminism during this period gave them an unprecedented international prominence and an unexpected transnational audience.

Nor were these just social calls. In the 1970s, Rosalynn Carter deeply influenced US foreign policy on several trips abroad, helping her husband's administration, for instance, redefine the Panama Canal treaties and foster Middle East negotiations. In June 1977, she undertook one of the most overtly political international missions ever assumed by a First Lady: She visited Jamaica, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela as the president's personal representative, holding substantive meetings with Central and South American policy leaders on issues such as human rights, arms reduction, demilitarisation, beef exports, pilot training and drug trafficking. She also attended the peace talks negotiated by the president between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

Not every First Lady needs to be a Rosalynn Carter. But how does Melania Trump measure up as First Lady? It may be too early for an exhaustive assessment, but she seems to be grappling with the duties of a position she was unprepared to take on.

Melania's social agenda largely adheres to the one set by her predecessors and hardly reflects any of her own concerns. Unlike her longtime interests in fashion and fine art, her involvement in humanitarian and social campaigns, such as the one against cyberbullying, is quite recent and covered with feigned enthusiasm. Her overall aptness is so questionable that even when she tried her best to be empathetic to the people struck by Hurricane Harvey in Texas, she ended up eliciting widespread criticism because of her outfit.

It is of course true that the office of the First Lady represents a drift toward a less-representative democracy. Voters can provide no direct oversight of the activities that first ladies carry out at home and abroad. But first ladies have achieved important policy goals and helped to strengthen American democracy through their activism. Because the office of the First Lady has become an extension, and a reflection, of the administration's agenda and effectiveness, it is essential to understand whether a first lady satisfies the requirements of her position.

And that is in the end the underlying question posed by Ivana's remarks. Ivana admitted she wasn't fit for the office, and charged that Melania wasn't, either. Melania needs to prove her wrong, not so that she can best one of her husband's former wives, but because she has the potential to have a real impact on the country in her current role.

The Washington Post

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