Dis­card­ing the idea of a first lady

It’s a make-work role that has out­lived its time and place

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Suzanne Fields

The role of first lady is out of date, an anachro­nism and be­nign ne­po­tism at best. At worst it’s an un­elected ap­pendage to the pres­i­dent. In Trump time, when all as­sump­tions are sub­ject to re­vi­sion, the time is right to think again about the ul­ti­mate “wife of.”

Me­la­nia Trump has done us a fa­vor by post­pon­ing her ar­rival in Wash­ing­ton. She doesn’t want to dis­rupt the school year in New York City for their son, Bar­ron, age 10. She wants to be a mother first. Fair enough. No one elected her to any­thing, any­way, and she’s got her pri­or­i­ties straight. Don­ald Trump rep­re­sents the party of “fam­ily val­ues,” so she should fit right in.

The most fe­ro­cious crit­ics of Me­la­nia’s de­ci­sion re­buke and re­prove from Man­hat­tan, where never is heard an en­cour­ag­ing word for any­thing Trump. The beau­ti­ful peo­ple hate the traf­fic jams they ex­pect at Trump Tower, but their con­cerns don’t count for much. New York Mayor Bill de Bla­sio is look­ing for ways to be re­im­bursed for the costs of the Don­ald’s vis­its that have made busi­ness as usual im­pos­si­ble.

New York is not Plains, Ga., pop­u­la­tion 776, whence came Jimmy Carter, nor Lit­tle Rock, from which Bubba sprang. Nor is it In­de­pen­dence, Mo., where Bess Tru­man fre­quently took refuge from Wash­ing­ton. Pres­i­den­tial home­places of all sizes have to take their lumps when the trap­pings of fame and power in­trude. Neigh­bors in the af­flu­ent Kalo­rama neigh­bor­hood of Wash­ing­ton, where the Oba­mas will live post-White House, aren’t so pleased about the com­ing in­va­sion of gawk­ers, ei­ther.

Be­sides, it’s only a short trip from New York to Wash­ing­ton when Me­la­nia is needed for a sig­nif­i­cant so­cial gath­er­ing, or to have a quiet din­ner in the White House with her hus­band. First lady staffs, which typ­i­cally run from a few to a few dozen, are nec­es­sary to smooth the path of a celebrity “wife of” in the mod­ern me­dia cul­ture, but un­less she de­cides to be­come ac­tive in pol­i­tics, a small staff should be all she needs.

Re­think­ing the role of the first lady may up­set some tra­di­tion­al­ists, but the role was never rooted in tra­di­tion, but was im­pro­vised as an ex­tra-con­sti­tu­tional po­si­tion de­pen­dent on who was mar­ried to the “first gen­tle­man.” Per­cep­tions of women were dif­fer­ent then. The real power of the pres­i­dent’s wife has al­ways come from “pil­low talk” and we’re not privy to that.

In the be­gin­ning, no one knew what to call the wife of the pres­i­dent. Martha Wash­ing­ton was some­times called Lady Wash­ing­ton, pomp and pom­pos­ity hav­ing lin­gered in the imag­i­na­tions of young democrats in the fledg­ling re­pub­lic. She re­fused to talk pol­i­tics, choos­ing to charm rather than en­gage her hus­band’s of­fi­cial com­pany.

Abi­gail Adams, who fol­lowed her, was ridiculed by her hus­band’s en­e­mies for “loy­ally sup­port­ing her hus­band’s views.” When he was away, she kept him ap­prised of the po­lit­i­cal machi­na­tions against him. Dol­ley Madi­son in­truded her­self diplo­mat­i­cally into the so­cial life of pol­i­tics, en­ter­tain­ing friends and keep­ing her hus­band’s en­e­mies close to train an ea­gle eye on both. Not all first ladies lim­ited them­selves to be­ing help­mates. When a stroke felled Woodrow Wil­son, his wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wil­son, be­came his un­der­study, with­out a re­hearsal. Crit­ics were out­raged when she de­ter­mined who met with the pres­i­dent, and ac­cused her of run­ning a “pet­ti­coat gov­ern­ment.” Eleanor Roo­sevelt was cen­sured for her per­sonal ob­ser­va­tions as the pres­i­dent’s “eyes and ears,” trav­el­ing into slums, fields and even coal mines to cham­pion his New Deal projects. She held press con­fer­ences with women of the press.

First ladies flour­ished with that ti­tle through sev­eral pres­i­den­cies, of­ten invit­ing ridicule, syco­phancy and power. Jackie Kennedy for­bade her staff to call her “first lady” be­cause she thought it made her sound like a sad­dle horse, and fled her du­ties in Wash­ing­ton as of­ten as she could. Since her hus­band pur­sued clan­des­tine assig­na­tions, not nec­es­sar­ily to dis­cuss the farm bill or a cri­sis in Kenya, it was her es­cape from more than pol­i­tics.

Bill and Hil­lary cam­paigned for the pres­i­dency with the slo­gan, “Buy one, get one free.” When he put Hil­lary in charge of health care and she held se­cret meet­ings that pro­duced only con­tro­versy, the public soon rec­og­nized a bad bar­gain. Hil­lary thought this year she would have to find a project for the first gen­tle­man, and the idea of mak­ing work for a “hus­band of” be­came a joke.

Me­la­nia sug­gests that as first lady she will fo­cus on cy­ber­bul­ly­ing. Good enough, if a bit con­trived. (Trump haters sug­gest she start with her hus­band’s tweet­ing.) A con­fi­dent woman, flu­ent in five lan­guages, who en­joyed a suc­cess­ful ca­reer in mod­el­ing, prefers her pri­vacy to the lime­light, and wants to be full­time mother. We should just let Me­la­nia be Me­la­nia. But you know we won’t.

The most fe­ro­cious crit­ics of Me­la­nia’s de­ci­sion re­buke and re­prove from Man­hat­tan, where never is heard an en­cour­ag­ing word for any­thing Trump.

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

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