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Melania Trump announces the White House Rose Garden will be revamped, a throwback to the Kennedy era

First lady Melania Trump speaks about her Be Best program during an event in the Rose Garden of the White House in May 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Ninety-nine days before the election that will determine whether President Trump has a second term in office, first lady Melania Trump made a rare appearance in the spotlight Monday to announce she’d be overseeing the first renovation of the White House Rose Garden in 58 years.

The first lady’s plans are a throwback to the era of Jacqueline Kennedy, whom Trump has said she admires. According to the White House, Trump aims to restore the garden’s original footprint to its 1962 redesign, which Kennedy helped oversee and which President John F. Kennedy commissioned from his friend Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, an heiress to the Listerine fortune who was an amateur authority on horticulture and landscape architecture.

While many presidents have held events in the garden, Donald Trump has been especially inclined to use its dramatic backdrop of colorful flowers and white neoclassical columns to hold outdoor news conferences. Similar to the way he has touted the benefits of incandescent lightbulbs, the president seems to see the natural light of the garden as favorable to his complexion, according to a New York Times report. The renovation, which will include excavation, will put the Rose Garden out of commission for such events for approximately the next three weeks.

In the faraway, pre-covid world of last September, the Rose Garden was the site of what could end up being the defining social event of the president’s term, when the first lady hosted Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and his wife, Jenny, for the second of two state dinners held during the Trump administration. (There have been only eight held in the Rose Garden since 1962.) It was a glitzy affair that seemed to signal the first lady’s reverence for White House tradition and history. A military band played on the West Wing roof and tables were set with green and gold. Dover sole was served and the Clinton and George W. Bush china used. The space seems to hold a special significance for Melania Trump: It’s where she launched her Be Best initiative and has celebrated its anniversary.

Soon after the announcement, “Marie Antoinette” began trending on Twitter, with many making reference to Senate Republicans’ proposal to slash emergency unemployment benefits, as more than 40 million Americans have filed unemployment claims during the pandemic. “Marie Antoinette would TOTALLY nod her head to Melania trump’s tone-deaf aloofness if she still had a head,” one user tweeted.

Announcements of the “significant renewal,” as the White House called it, come on the heels of the first lady’s first solo, in-person media appearance since early March. On Thursday, she attended a briefing with the Indian Health Service system to discuss the safety of Native American children as part of her Be Best initiative.

While she has accompanied the president on occasions such as Memorial Day and the Fourth of July and made quiet trips to speak with women affected by the opioid crisis and to drop off personal protective equipment for members of a Washington fire station, nothing she has done in the intervening months has had quite the heft of her pre-pandemic, public-facing activities — until now. In March, her first two solo fundraisers for the Trump campaign were canceled because of the virus.

The Rose Garden announcement is coming at a time when President Trump is under a barrage of scrutiny, notes Myra Gutin, author of “The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century.” Federal officers are using military tactics against protesters in Portland, Ore.; the country’s coronavirus death toll is approaching 150,000 with no abatement of infections in sight; and nearly every major poll shows him down in the presidential race by significant digits.

“While it’s a traditional first lady action to pay attention to the Rose Garden and other aspects of the White House, and I’m not belittling them by any means, it does strike me as a diversion, yet again,” said Gutin, a professor of communication at Rider University in New Jersey. Gutin pointed out that the plans for the Rose Garden renovations have been in the works for months.

“The timing is a little suspect,” Gutin went on, “that this is coming out right now, during all the negative press the administration is getting — I don’t know, maybe it takes him away from the bad press for a few minutes.”

While the garden was started in 1913 by Woodrow Wilson’s first wife, Ellen Wilson, it wasn’t used as the grand staging ground for events that it is today until the Kennedy administration. “Those steps on the west end where the president will come out and stand and speak, that was John Kennedy’s idea to put those steps out there to create a little stage,” said Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association. The WHHA is not involved with exterior renovations, which are overseen by the National Park Service and funded through private donations.

Whereas many parts of the White House have been reimagined over the years as different first ladies have cycled through its walls, the Rose Garden is one of the few spaces that have retained a connection to the Kennedys. “I think it’s nice that Mrs. Trump would honor Mrs. Kennedy in that way and want to care for the Kennedys’ legacy with that important garden and to make sure it’s cared for and maintained and used properly,” McLaurin said. (Tuesday is Jacqueline Kennedy’s birthday, though the White House news release did not mention it.)

“It has been my goal from the very beginning of this project that the restoration of the Rose Garden is sensitive to the history of all that has come before, including the admirable plan of Bunny Mellon’s design of 1962,” the first lady said in remarks Monday at a meeting of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House.

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As Anita McBride, former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush, points out, August is a typical time for renovations. The one for the Rose Garden has been months in the works and will include upgrades to improve accessibility for those with disabilities and provide “support for audiovisual and broadcast needs,” according to the White House announcement. There are also drainage issues that will reportedly be addressed.

The first lady has overseen changes to the Red Room, Blue Room and bowling alley, among other spaces. The Rose Garden announcement echoes one she made in March, when she released photographs of herself in a hard hat, poring over architectural plans for the construction of a White House Tennis Pavilion at a time when schools were beginning to be closed. The Rose Garden Twitter responses are a callback to then, when references to her as Marie Antoinette telling her people to eat cake began circulating on the Internet.

The comparisons revived on Twitter on Monday following the announcement. “Marie Antoinette would TOTALLY nod her head to Melania trump’s tone-deaf aloofness if she still had a head,” one user tweeted.

McLaurin said that the Rose Garden renovation was a way for Melania Trump to make a lasting improvement to the White House. “At the end of the day, the White House belongs to the American people,” McLaurin said. “And it’s the responsibility of every president and first lady to care for the house on behalf of the American people and to leave it for those that follow them.”

At the same time, Gutin points out, during the pandemic, Melania Trump’s messaging has emphasized safety, as she has posted a picture of herself in a mask on Instagram, telling her followers to stay vigilant about the virus. Gutin said a more effective exercise in legacy-building than spearheading a Rose Garden renovation would be concentrating on her Be Best initiative. “There’s so much with this administration I don’t understand,” she said. “I’ve been saying it now for three and a half years. You see an action, and you don’t know exactly what the motivation is.”

This story has been updated to clarify Stewart McLaurin’s comments.

Read more:

Michelle Obama is stepping into the 2020 election with a program to boost voter turnout

How a plain and tired lawn became the Rose Garden

Jackie Kennedy’s handmade scrapbook offers a rare glimpse of Rose Garden’s birth

Jura Koncius contributed to this report.