- - Wednesday, April 25, 2018


This has been the fortnight of the first ladies. Last week the focus was on two former first ladies, one about mourning and fond admiring recollections, and one about yet another book of scathing analytical criticism. Barbara Bush was celebrated for her blunt dignity. Hillary Clinton was recalled for her campaign of blunt excuses for her own failures.

In death, Barbara Bush was praised as an old-fashioned matriarch speaking her mind with a sharp tongue, loved by family and lauded as the wife of a president and the mother of another. In life, Hillary Clinton has never been at home in the role of “wife of,” and took pride in not being the kind of wife and mother who stayed home and baked cookies. She yearned for an Oval Office of her own and blames everyone but herself for not getting there.

“They were never going to let me be president,” she told Amy Chozick for her book “Chasing Hillary,” a biography of the 2016 campaign. “They,” according to Hillary as reported by Ms. Chozick, who covered that campaign for The New York Times, included “the vast right-wing media conspiracy,” piggie forms of patriarchy, Wisconsin voters, James Comey, and suburban white women who would rather vote for “a man who bragged about sexual assault than for a woman who seemed an affront to who they were.” The former first lady includes all the political reporters left and right with “big egos and no brains” who hounded her with questions about her emails.

It’s not fair, perhaps, to first ladies to make them public figures, a role in nearly all cases they did not choose, but one thrust upon them whether they liked it or not by virtue of the man they married. The exception is Hillary, always ambitious for political power, who set out to use the role of first lady as a stepping stone to the U.S. Senate, secretary of State, and ultimately the Oval Office.

From Martha Washington onward, the ladies adapted to marriage with a president by living out promises spoken in their marriage vows, for better and for worse suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but enjoying the perks, pomp and prestige bestowed by a husband’s fortune. This is the gilt by association that comes with marriage to the most powerful man in the world.

Melania Trump is still a work in progress as first lady, a beautiful model who enjoyed the sophisticated social life of New York society and came to Washington untutored and unprepared for the roughhewn politics that follow all presidents to the White House. It was not an easy journey from her “golden fortress” in Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in New York to the demands of the mistress of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

On election night, when Donald Trump was declared winner, she had to feel like Rachel Jackson, wife of Andrew, who, on hearing that her husband had won the presidency, said she was pleased for him but “for my own part, I never wished it.”

Rachel died before her husband was sworn in. Melania could only delay her arrival at the White House for a few months, not to interrupt her son Barron’s school year in New York. When she finally arrived she was criticized for doing too little, too late, and then mercilessly mocked or publicly pitied as scandals of “other women” in her husband’s past blossomed on the front pages.

More media attention has been paid to whether she allows the president to hold her hand than about anything she has had to say. This week Melania Trump not only held her husband’s hand on the steps of the White House as they welcomed President Emmanuel Macron of France and his wife, Brigitte, and then escorted them to their first state dinner. She was widely praised for her mastery of the details of the dinner, from the glittering gold plates and candelabras to the pink cherry blossoms in tall black urns.

Nobody minded that she was gorgeous in a black Chantilly lace haute couture Chanel gown hand-painted with silver and embroidered with crystals and sequins, wearing it like the model she was trained to be. She might have been wounded by stray verbal shrapnel from ammunition aimed at her husband, but at dinner she stood above the gossipy fray, a hostess drawing on her own charm, skill and confidence.

“A man marries a woman, not a first lady,” John F. Kennedy once said of his elegant wife, Jackie. “She must fit her own personality into her own concept of a first lady’s role.” Or, to echo a famous exhortation directed at critics of a previous president many of us can remember, “it’s time to let Melania be Melania.”

Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.

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