Return of the Retro First Lady?

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“You can tell a lot about a person by whom they choose to marry,” noted a recent New York Times piece titled “Why Men Want to Marry Melanias and Raise Ivankas.” The essay explores the “perversely traditional” values of the Trump family, describing the qualities of the several women Donald Trump has called wife “remarkably retro.” Melania Trump—who has been criticized by some in the media for her backseat role in her husband’s election until her speech at the Republican National Convention last week—”emphasizes her role as a mother comes before all else.”

Any American woman looking to criticize Melania for her minor role in the politics of Donald Trump’s campaign should look back in time to another decidedly “retro” First Lady who nevertheless had an outsize impact on American political culture: Jackie Kennedy.

“I’ll be a wife and mother first, then First Lady,” Jackie Kennedy once said. The obvious domestic posture of Melania Trump couldn’t be farther than the political posture of Hillary Clinton. Yet unlike Jackie’s pre-Kennedy years, Melania had her own career before becoming Mrs. Donald J. Trump. Melania Knauss, a Slovenian fashion model, began her jet-set lifestyle at sixteen, traveling between Milan and Paris for a decade before settling in New York City in 1996. She spent another decade modeling in New York before marrying Trump— at the age of thirty-five.

“I think the best thing I can do is to be a distraction,” said Mrs. Kennedy. “A husband lives and breathes his work all day long. If he comes home to more table thumping, how can the poor man ever relax?” If America yearns one again for a Kennedy-esque First Lady, Melania is it. As a conservative woman, it never bothered me that Jackie’s power was limited to being the wife of a politician. I had read all of the biographies and seen all of the photographs—Jackie had a backseat role in the administration, yet her influence was far more powerful than most Americans might imagine.

At the beginning of the campaign trail, the Kennedy family was worried about Jackie. She was too European, international, exotic—ultimately out of touch with the average American woman. Her penchant for French clothing, her fluency in four languages, and her unique style were qualities all out of place in the rambunctious and utterly American Kennedy family. And yet, as the campaign continued, the people began to love everything about Jackie: “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris,” Kennedy announced in 1961. Every aesthetic aspect of Jackie that the Kennedys were worried about became great assets on the campaign trail and in the White House, and the American people came to love her even more.

“I do have an official role as wife of the president,” she once said. “Whoever lives in the White House must preserve its traditions, enhance it, and leave something of herself there.” Jackie led a preservation project never before undertaken by White House staff before or since. She was instrumental in the preservation of many historic American buildings, including Washington’s Lafayette Square and New York’s Grand Central Terminal. She was a champion of the arts in America (and because of her love of the writings of Andre Malraux—French art theorist, novelist, and Minister of Cultural Affairs—Malraux lent Jackie the Mona Lisapersonally—and the First Lady put it on display for the public at the National Gallery of Art). But above all, her main role was as wife to John F. Kennedy and mother to John and Caroline. In an interview on the Today show in 1960, Jackie Kennedy said of her role as First Lady:

I have always thought the main duty is to preserve the president of the United States so he can be of best service to his country, and that means running a household smoothly around him, and helping him in any way he might ask you to.

Contrast this traditional view to that of the recent administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Healthcare reform and school lunch programs are meaningful endeavors, but public policy is not the professional role of the unelected spouse of the American President. Philanthropic endeavors and projects of historic preservation are appropriate realms for spouses, not costly reforms of government services. To achieve the goals of her White House preservation project, for example, Jackie relied largely on donations through various fundraising efforts, leveraging her relationships with high-profile leaders to pursue her passion for the arts. But all of these projects were secondary to her role as wife and mother. “If you bungle raising your children,” she once said,” I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.”

Times have changed a lot since Jackie was First Lady, of course, and not everyone is a fan of Donald Trump. But the media’s thinly-veiled disdain for Melania’s more traditional approach to the role of First Lady reveals just how little our culture—or at least the media—values the role of wife and mother. If Melania does become First Lady, she should look to another great lady—Jackie Kennedy—for guidance on how best to serve her country as an American woman. That’s not “perversely retro,” it’s refreshingly traditional.

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