If it's still strange to imagine Donald Trump—tabloid-verified sex-haver, unverified billionaire, Black Mirror character come to life—as president of the United States, think about how Melania Trump feels. As the third wife to a real estate mogul (or at least a guy who plays one on TV), she had some separation from her husband's larger-than-life persona, some semblance of a private life. Now she's set to become first lady—a full-time-plus job that's neither elected nor appointed, has no real clear-cut description of duties, pays nothing, and that she can't quit unless she gets a divorce.
It's not totally clear what Melania plans to do as first lady, other than installing the White House's first-ever "glam room," where she can do the complex work of making herself camera-ready. She's made it clear that she wants nothing to do with the political machine, to the extent that she'll continue to live in New York with the couple's son, Barron, rather than moving into the White House. She was barely involved in her husband's campaign (when she was, she proved to be more of a liability than an asset), and her one moment of public independence, when she announced that she would spearhead a campaign against cyberbullying as a first lady cause, was met with deserved mockery.
No one, including Melania herself, seems to know what kind of first lady she'll be. A few women who have occupied that role, most famously Hillary Clinton, have taken on meaty, policy-focused roles. More commonly, first ladies pursue one or two causes that no one can really object to (think Michelle Obama and childhood obesity). It's unclear if Melania will take on even that much responsibility, especially with Donald's daughter Ivanka set to serve as her father's close, if unofficial, advisor—unlike Melania, she's moving to DC.
So I put the question to Kate Andersen Brower, author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies, which includes dozens of interviews with first ladies and their staffs about what it takes to do the job. In an updated edition of her book, which came out this week, Brower looked at how Melania Trump stacks up to the women who came before her and what she might hope to accomplish—or avoid—once Donald is officially president.
VICE: First of all, what's the point of having a first lady?
Kate Andersen Brower: It's really a symbolic position. It can be incredibly daunting, the task of being first lady, because there is no job description. You're in charge of the residence—doing things like approving the menu for the week. You are doing things that are very 1950s housewife requirements. It can be frustrating for someone like Michelle Obama, who made more money than her husband before he became president. She'd worked her entire adult life, and then she was expected to no longer work or get paid [when she became first lady]. It's hard to feel sorry for her, of course, but I think giving up that part of your life for eight years is a lot to ask of somebody.
At the risk of sounding cheesy, [former and current first ladies] do help one another. If you look at the transition from Laura Bush to Michele Obama, it was a very smooth transition, because Laura Bush's staff sat down with Michelle Obama's staff and said, "Here are the events you need to do—the Easter egg roll, Christmas parties—and here are the things you can skip." I think they do that because they know how hard it is and the expectations that you face.
In Trump's case, there's been some dispute about who's going to take on those responsibilities. Melania doesn't seem too jazzed about it, but she did meet with Michelle Obama shortly after the election.
Right. That normally happens a couple weeks after the election, but in this case, it happened within 48 hours. I think the reason it happened so fast was because the Obamas wanted to send a signal that things are going to be OK and this will be a transition like any other and they support the new president. There's something very important about continuing American democracy and passing the torch. But I thought it was unusually fast, and unusual that there were no photos that day. You can go back and see these great photos of Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama, Jackie Kennedy and Mamie Eisenhower. It struck me that there wasn't even video of the Trumps coming in [to the White House] that day. We've seen Michelle Obama talk about Melania plagiarizing her speech, so she's not necessarily going to come out and be a cheerleader for Melania. It's going to be interesting to watch.
But Melania doesn't seem to even want to do it—I mean, she's said she's staying in New York, not moving into the White House.
Well, she can't get rid of the title. She is first lady. There's nothing she can do about that. But because the role is undefined, she could go to Ivanka and say, "I want you to do everything. I don't want to do this." Ivanka's going to be incredibly involved, and her influence on this administration cannot be overstated. She is the phone call that Donald Trump always takes, and we're seeing her husband, Jared Kushner, become a senior advisor. The fact that she's actually moving to DC and divesting herself from the business is a sign that she's going to be a big player.
That said, I think people would raise their eyebrows if Ivanka was her father's date at every state dinner. But she could absolutely do it. Look at Hillary Clinton with her West Wing office [during Bill Clinton's presidency]. She didn't want to be first lady; she wanted to be co-president. Because there's no blueprint, you can really do what you want. You don't have to be a traditional Laura or Barbara Bush.
That seems like a good branding opportunity for Ivanka.
How cynical of you! But I think you're right. I mean, look at that $10,000 bracelet she wore on the 60 Minutes interview. I think it's a smart move for her. I feel like Ivanka Trump is kind of like [first daughter] Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who was really excited about her father, Teddy Roosevelt, being president. When McKinley was assassinated and her father took over, she couldn't hide her excitement. It's that kind of unbridled ambition—and she is very ambitious. She wants to be an advisor to her father. That's not a bad thing. If she wants to weigh in on childcare and working moms, that might be good.
Is there precedent for someone other than a wife to take on first lady duties?
If you go back to the 19th century, this happened with Thomas Jefferson's daughter, who was the de facto first lady. Grover Cleveland's sister was first lady until he got married—so, you do see this in history, especially when people were routinely dying at 40 or 50 years old and sometimes wives weren't alive [by the time their husbands became president]. But to have a first lady who is alive and, well, not move to the White House is unprecedented. Even if you're a reluctant first lady, as many have been—it's not a job that everyone really relishes—you can still move into the White House and just not be there all the time. Beth Truman would leave to go to Missouri all the time; she was barely in DC. Jackie Kennedy left a lot to go horseback riding in Virginia. The fact that Melania isn't even moving is interesting to me.
Do you think Melania will still champion a cause, as previous first ladies have done?
It's all speculation, but Melania has come out and said cyberbullying would be her cause. Of course, she came under fire for that because of her husband's tweeting. It's interesting, because if any other first lady had said cyberbullying was her cause, no one would bat an eyelash. A perfect first lady cause is non-controversial, like what Michelle Obama has done with military families, or Laura Bush's cause of promoting literacy. You can't get more non-controversial than literacy. Maybe Melania Trump will get involved in something if something happens in the world, like a natural disaster or something, but I think the cyberbullying thing is kind of fraught.
Given that the position is pretty old-fashioned, why do we still have it? Wouldn't it make sense to create a separate position rather than thrusting the president's spouse into this role?
I do think Melania's reluctance will make people question how much do we really need this, and if Ivanka really is filling in, then it becomes kind of complicated. But I do think it's something we'll always have. There are so many antiquated parts of the White House—like, there are chiefs of protocol who are there to monitor how many inches knives and forks should be away from one another at state dinners—but it's a necessity. I don't think it has to be a negative thing. I'd like to see a first lady be able to continue their carer, like the way Jill Biden was still teaching as a second lady. But I think getting rid of the position would be sad. There's something important about the tradition. The responsibilities might shift, but I don't think the title is going anywhere.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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