I have long been interested in our nation’s first ladies, beginning when I checked out a book on Abigail “remember the ladies” Adams from the library of the late, great Haymount Elementary School where Haymount 700 now stands.
No matter what stage of our history or what political position she represents, each of our first ladies came to her unpaid position, whether she wanted it or not, only because her husband managed to get himself elected president. Each found herself in an unscripted position that is not exactly a job, but one that comes with high expectations from her fellow Americans.
Some first ladies are better at “the job” than others. Dolley Madison possessed social skills so strong that her husband, President James, basked in her reflected glory. A North Carolina native, Dolley Madison did not invent ice cream as legend has asserted, but she did serve oyster ice cream at the then-new White House.
Edith Wilson became our de facto president after her husband suffered a debilitating stroke, allowing few others in to see him and “interpreting” and “relaying” his wishes herself.
Jacqueline Kennedy became the most famous woman in the world and remains a glamorous fashion and social icon more than two decades after her death.
Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan helped us understand addiction and cancer. Hillary Clinton introduced us to the notion of policy wonks, and Michelle Obama taught us healthier and local eating habits.
It is also fair to say that no first lady, at least in my lifetime, has been more mysterious than Melania Trump.
One of only two first ladies born outside the United States – Louisa Adams, Mrs. John Quincy, was born in London – Melania Trump began modeling in her native Slovenia at age 16 and became a U.S. citizen in 2006, a year after she married “the Donald,” the nickname given our current president by a previous wife.
Melania reportedly speaks six languages, English among them. Last year, she inexplicably wore a $51,500 jacket on a visit to Italy, a price tag just slightly under the median U.S. household income in 2017. She had a mysterious operation earlier this year and spent several days in a Washington, D.C., hospital. She mysteriously wore a jacket with “I really don’t care do U” emblazoned on its back to visit immigrant children in cages along our Texas border. Her ongoing silence as the world chews over her husband’s conversations about paying off women is extremely curious. Even her signature program as first lady, BE BEST, is mysterious, as no one quite knows what it means.
North Carolina humorist Celia Rivenbark wrote about our mysterious first lady in a recent column that began with this. “Sometimes I wish I could sit down with Melania Trump over a box of KFC’s new picklefried chicken tenders … and have a real just-us-girls conversation.”
So do I, Celia, so do I.
Rivenbark went on in this vein. “Being beautiful and aloof will only get you so far. After a while, people want to shake that empty Valentino suit and see what’s up. For example, why did she look so happy – a first – smiling radiantly while chatting with Obama at Barbara Bush’s funeral? In contrast, when she stands beside her husband, she looks like someone who really has to pee but has just been told the next restroom is 90 minutes up the interstate.”
I am willing to cut Melania a bit more slack.
It cannot be easy just being Mrs. Donald Trump. Layer on the pressures of the presidency, the lack of privacy for an obviously private person and the ill-defined but nevertheless real responsibilities of the first lady, and life has got to be tough for Melania.
On the morning I am writing this column, the news is full of President Trump in full wackadoodle rage mode after discovering his wife’s Air Force One television tuned to CNN in defiance of his presidential edict that all sets be tuned to his preferred network, Fox. In an unusual show of independence, the first lady’s official spokesperson announced our first lady will watch “any channel she wants.”
Maybe Melania is not as mysterious as we think.