“Parents and teachers are on the front lines of this battle,” she said, referring not to the pandemic but to combating negativity in the digital age. “When I launched the Be Best Initiative, my first goal was to raise awareness of the three primary issues that children face today — social-emotional health, opioid abuse, and online safety.”
Yet all around her were signs that another matter was top of mind for everyone in the room, such as the copious hand sanitizer at the check-in table, or when national PTA president Leslie Boggs, thanked the delegates who were not able to attend because of the national health crisis.
“Because we are fighting what?” Boggs asked the crowd.
“Coronavirus!” they shouted back.
The first lady, who generally refrains from commenting on the news, did not waver from talking about her program focused on children’s health and well-being. As the number of virus cases increases and financial markets rise and fall erratically, Trump has stayed on message about her priorities — even if they sometimes seem off-key.
In addition to the PTA gathering, Trump spoke at the Justice Department’s National Opioid Summit on Friday and the International Women of Courage Awards Ceremony at the State Department last Wednesday. She also posted pictures on social media of herself in a hard hat overseeing construction of a new tennis pavilion at the White House and thanking the staff working on it for their hard work and dedication. The picture evoked a harsh reaction from Trump administration critics, who accused the first lady of lacking empathy as covid-19 spreads. Some said she had “Marie Antoinette energy,” as in “let them lob serves.” Others cited the tornado in Nashville that had killed 29 people last Tuesday.
(The pictures also seemed to show that the crews were using President Obama’s basketball courts as a staging ground, leaving it covered in dirt and debris, which added another layer to the criticism.) She then posted a second tweet defending herself from the criticism. “I encourage everyone who chooses to be negative & question my work at the @WhiteHouse to take time and contribute something good & productive in their own communities. #BeBest.”
Before that came the first couple’s visit to India, where she accompanied the president on a whirlwind 36-hour visit. That and a few smaller appearances mark a major uptick in the first lady’s schedule compared with the period of the president’s impeachment, when she seemed to be almost completely off the radar for two months.
All of this is a deviation from the mode of national yenta that most modern first ladies have assumed in times of crisis, said Myra Gutin, author of “The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century” and a professor of communication at New Jersey’s Rider University (which is also shuttering classes and asking students to extend their spring breaks).
This is the first time in modern history that the nation has faced a pandemic of this scale, but in times of trouble Americans have turned to first ladies. Gutin pointed to Lady Bird Johnson’s public role after President Kennedy’s assassination, Betty Ford’s after President Nixon’s resignation, and Laura Bush’s after 9/11. The Washington Post called Laura Bush “Comforter in Chief” in 2001, for the many visits she made to grieving families.
Bush, a former teacher, even spent an hour on Oprah answering questions for nervous parents who wanted to know how they could talk to their kids about what happened. She advised turning off the TV for starters, and hugging their children.
“[Trump is] not a doctor, so maybe it’s not a bad thing that she doesn’t speak out about the more specific details of coronavirus,” said Gutin. “On the other hand, she had an ideal platform with educators from around the country. It might have been an opportunity to say something reassuring. It’s a scary time.”
Princeton political scientist Lauren A. Wright also found it odd that Trump didn’t reference coronavirus, given that it relates to the core aims of protecting children’s health as outlined in Be Best.
“I understand the temptation to chalk this up to an example of Melania Trump’s reluctance to participate in political debates, but there is nothing controversial about a first lady offering words of comfort and confidence in times of national distress,” said Wright.
The first lady is more popular than her husband, Wright pointed out, and has the power to mitigate some of the perceptions Americans might have about the president’s handling of the pandemic. “Every speech is important, whether it relates to a first lady’s portfolio or not,” said Wright. “But this one happened to, which is what makes it a head-scratcher to me.”
A few miles away from the conference where the first lady spoke this week, a handful of Republican lawmakers were under self-quarantine after coming into contact with someone who’d tested positive for coronavirus at the annual Conservative Public Action Conference.
According to Boggs, the national PTA president, about a dozen delegates decided to stay home. That included the entire delegation from Washington state, where at least 24 people have died. Others were in the age range at which they felt that taking flights to get to the conference was too much of a risk.
The first lady’s decision to stay far away from any mention of the major public health crisis and the attendant wave of panic that is sweeping the globe did not seem to bother most conference attendees.
Just as she did during impeachment, when she acknowledged the matter in public once — when her teenage son Barron’s name was invoked during the congressional hearings — she stuck to her prepared remarks, reading a teleprompter from a bubble not even a pandemic could pierce.
In her six-minute remarks, Trump spoke instead of her goal of highlighting successful Be-Best adjacent programs around the world: “Three years later, I am proud to say we have made great strides in fulfilling this mission.”
She did deviate from her prepared remarks briefly. Boggs had spoken about the loss of her 12-year-old grandson, Noah, who died last week from complications of an autoimmune disease. Trump turned to her and said, “I am so sorry for your loss.”
She also referenced the case of Channing Smith, the 16-year-old in Tennessee who killed himself after intimate messages to another boy were leaked online. But she did not mention that Smith was harassed because of his sexuality.
She called the Internet a “tool for good” that could be “destructive and dangerous,” and “even deadly” if used improperly. Then concluded, “And thank you for the wonderful progress you’ve made in helping our children Be Best.”
When she’d taken the stage, the front half of the ballroom gave her a standing ovation, while the back half remained seated. “I can tell you that her presence caught us by surprise,” said Shanda Ross of Atlanta and first vice president of the Georgia PTA. Some attendees found out via news release at 10 the night before they arrived. “It was like, ‘Oh. Really? Oh?’ ”
At least Trump had gotten a better reception than the overall tepid response to last year’s surprise speaker, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. “Today was good compared to that,” said Ross. “We’re always going to be respectful.”
Members of the national PTA were set to visit Capitol Hill today, where they will implore lawmakers and Trump administration officials to renew Michelle Obama’s child nutrition programs for school lunches, which President Trump has steadily rolled back.
The first lady’s motorcade had left the White House for the PTA conference at the same time as President Trump’s was leaving to take him to meet with Senate Republicans about his coronavirus economic plan. There, he assured Americans, “It will go away, just stay calm,” and deflected questions about whether he’d been tested following possible exposure during the CPAC conference.
On March 18, the first lady was scheduled to headline her first solo fundraiser in Beverly Hills for the president’s reelection bid. Guests were expected to pay as much as $70,000 per couple for VIP access and a photo with the first lady. Then citing an unspecified “scheduling conflict,” which apparently had nothing to do with California Gov. Gavin Newsom declaring a state of emergency due to coronavirus, she canceled two days ago.
Many PTA attendees seemed fine, even relieved that she hadn’t talked about the news of the day. “I think her husband is saying enough,” said Maxine Lewers of Coconut Creek, Fla., who’s hugging all her old friends, virus be darned. “That wasn’t her purpose here today. She made a point about online bullying, but it’s like she can’t do anything right.”
Boggs says she would’ve been shocked if Melania Trump had mentioned it. “We were more about the program of what she was doing with children, and she did that really well,” she said. “I think we hear enough about [coronavirus] on the news, enough to drive you crazy, so I was thankful that she didn’t [say anything]!”
Tonya Sweat, vice president of advocacy for the Maryland PTA, said she’d been scared to come to the conference and scared at home, where infections were rising in her state and a dozen evacuees from a quarantined cruise ship were set to come home. She said she applauded the first lady’s dedication to eradicating cyberbullying, but “I wish our president would do better and take his wife’s advice and I’ll leave it at that.”
Ross, the Georgia PTA vice president, said she appreciated the first lady’s efforts in coming to the conference, but Ross was in Washington to advocate on the Hill for children’s programs, such as family engagement centers and child nutrition standards, that she felt the Trump administration and its allies had gutted. She said it was hard to see the Trump administration eroding good programs and then listen to the first lady talk about her Be Best initiative, which seemed to Ross to be “more fluff than there is core.”
What did she think of the lack of a coronavirus mention?
“One-sentence review? Convenient,” she said, laughing. “To completely ignore it was a bit disrespectful.”
Atlanta’s Fulton County had closed its 93,500-student school district after a teacher tested positive, and Ross was hearing from stressed parents who had to scramble for child care or stay home from work. Or worse, low-income parents who now had to wonder how they were going to feed their kids without the help of a school-provided lunch.
Melania Trump has a school-age son, Ross pointed out, but she doubted she could relate to that struggle.
“At least empathize. Or act like you can empathize even if you can’t!” Ross said. “But for there not to be any acknowledgment at all about it, I can truly say that was probably perceived as a slap in the face.”