Opinion: Stop treating Melania Trump as an enigma


President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington Sept. 11, after returning from the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa.

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington Sept. 11, after returning from the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa.

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington Sept. 11, after returning from the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa.

President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump arrive on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington Sept. 11, after returning from the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pa.

It’s tough to maintain an air of mystery in the year of “I can’t breathe,” a mantra for protests over racist police brutality that could also apply to the almost 200,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19.

Still, you have to hand it to Melania Trump. Enigmatic is not an easy brand for any public figure to maintain these days, when every phone is a camera, an editing bay and a research library, when the most popular form of exercise is the knee-jerk reaction.

Given her current habitat — a White House where the turnover rate is almost as high as the indictment rate — and her spouse, a president who has leveraged television and social media better than any American who is not a Kardashian, it must have taken an iron will to remain a cipher for so long.

For almost four years, she has been a Sphinx-like figure, granting few interviews, making few public speeches and generally forcing the American public to parse her every move (and, during the early months of the Trump administration, which she chose to spend in New York, non-move), outfit, heel height, gesture, facial expression and physical-distance-from-president choice for clues. Clues to the state of her marriage, her politics, her emotional well-being, even her personal safety.

Every first lady endures a certain level of scrutiny, a weighted seesaw of criticism and praise — where some saw Jackie Kennedy as a fashion icon, others considered her an elitist spendthrift; ditto Nancy Reagan. And many in the role struggle with the confines of daily life; Michelle Obama famously told Stephen Colbert that she just wanted to be able to open a window.

But has any other first lady been disdained by some as a gold-digger and pitied by others as a steely-eyed sufferer? Has there ever been a first lady who generated even half-serious concerns — #FreeMelania — that she was being held in the White House against her will?

Now, however, those days of uncertainty are over. Whether by strategy, necessity or simply the inexorable nature of time, Melania has become a player. For the last few months, she’s been at the center of various news cycles, and not in the previous “why is she wearing stilettos to visit hurricane victims?” kind of way.

She became the first, and really only, Trump to encourage the public to wear masks and follow CDC guidelines. She unveiled her redesigned Rose Garden; made the most universally well-received speech of the Republican National Convention; was the subject of two not very flattering books, including one by a former close friend and adviser; and joined her husband in tweeting a rejection of an Atlantic story in which anonymous sources offered accounts of the president saying terrible things about veterans.

And, with the notable exception of actually mentioning the scourges of racism and coronavirus currently plaguing our country during her RNC speech, she is not saying anything different from her husband and his supporters.

This should come as no surprise to anyone — she is first lady Melania Trump after all, was a vocal partner in her husband’s ongoing and unfounded charges that Barack Obama was not an American citizen, and quite candid in her 2017 interview with Anderson Cooper that she could not understand why anyone would feel sorry for her.

Nor should any jaws drop at the revelation that she stayed in New York for the first five months of her husband’s administration, at great cost to the American taxpayers, because she wanted to renegotiate her prenup and didn’t want to move into the White House until the residence had been renovated. Or at any of the other details of a life organized around self-centered convenience and a “what, me worry?” attitude disclosed in both Mary Jordan’s “The Art of Her Deal: The Untold Story of Melania Trump” and Stephanie Winston Wolkoff’s “Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship With the First Lady.”

The books are very different in tone and purpose. The first, by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a reported primer about Melania’s influential role in the Trump administration; the second, by an event planner who was made a scapegoat in the ongoing investigation into spending by Trump’s inaugural committee, is a self-pitying account of a power “friendship” gone sour.

So it is rather remarkable that the Melania who emerges from both is virtually the same — single-minded, non-forthcoming, focused on getting what she wants, be it a ban on flavored nicotine products or blocking Ivanka from key swearing-in photos.

Over the years, that role has been as varied as the women who assumed the title. Some — Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, Hillary Clinton — were more openly involved in policy than others, but most have taken up causes including the arts (Jacqueline Kennedy), addiction (Nancy Reagan), literacy (Laura Bush) and childhood obesity (Michelle Obama). All served as host and companion — Pat Nixon is the most traveled first lady — though some kept a lower profile than others.

Melania Trump is an unusual first lady in many respects: She is only the second to have been born outside the United States (John Quincy Adams’ wife, Louisa, was born in London), and the first for whom English is not her first language. She had a career as a model when she married Donald — for the trivia-minded, the Trumps’ 24-year age gap is the third-largest the White House has seen, following John and Julia Tyler (30 years) and Grover and Frances Cleveland (28 years) — and she is the only first lady to be plagued by the nuisance of nude photographs being made public. She also may be the first to choose a cause — the fight against cyberbullying — that puts her in existential opposition to her husband, who is, by any standard you choose, a cyberbully.

Many accounts reveal that she encouraged her husband to enter, and win, the race in 2016 and now, in full reelection gear, it is clear that Melania is very happy to be first lady, albeit on her own terms.

But circumstances have changed since 2016, and even since 2019, and — like her prenup — those terms must take that change into account. Melania is no longer a new kid in town. She may remain one of the most “private” first ladies in history, but the time of speculation has passed. The residence has been remodeled, the garden redone, the “Be Best” campaign launched, the books written. Whether she disagrees, as she has said, with some of the things her husband has posted on Twitter, she has been part and parcel of the Trump presidency for four contentious and eventful years.

She can remain detached, but she is no longer unknowable. The enigma has been cracked, and the reveal is really no surprise — Melania Trump, like many of us, is a person who wants what she wants. And she wants her husband to remain president for another four years.

Mary McNamara is a culture columnist and critic for the Los Angeles Times. This is excerpted from a recent column.

SOURCE: https://www.w24news.com/news/opinion-stop-treating-melania-trump-as-an-enigma/?remotepost=272660

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