There are precious few individuals that modern Americans universally love, and one of those individuals is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. “Jackie O” is off limits for criticism. Jackie O’s jersey number has been retired. Jackie O embodied that whole “Camelot” narrative, and Americans, who threw off the British monarchy and then spent 200 years enviously ogling tiaras and coronations across the pond, lapped it up.
Those who weren’t bewitched by her early public persona — all pastels and whispery softness — could be enamored of her later years, when she took an intellectual-type job as a book editor and reportedly did her own Xeroxing.
Everyone loves Jackie Kennedy Onassis, everyone knows she is beyond compare, which is the trap President Trump fell into on Friday when he tried to make a comparison.
“We have our own Jackie O today, it’s called Melania. Melania. We’ll call it Melania T, okay?” he said in a phone interview on “Fox & Friends.”
Firstly, yes. Yes, the president did use the pronoun “it,” twice, to refer to his wife.
Secondly, as with many mangled statements he makes, you could squint your eyes and sort of see where he was going with it.
The quote was in the context of updating Air Force One, which currently sports a color scheme Jackie chose while her husband was president. Melania Trump is now the first lady, and she has some aesthetic credentials: She studied architecture in college (though she didn’t graduate) and later worked as a model. Jackie didn’t have any particular design training when she launched a massive White House renovation and preservation project — she had studied French literature and then worked for a newspaper — but the end result became her celebrated legacy. At any rate, Trump probably figured his wife was just as capable of choosing colors for an airplane.
But it wasn’t about color selection, as angry Jackie loyalists immediately made clear. It was about vaguer questions of taste and class — both in the “upper class/lower class” sense of the term and in the “good/bad” sense.
“Jackie O had class,” tweeted former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean. “No one named Trump has ever had class and never will. Sorry DJT.”
One can imagine the president, an unsubtle man, reading that tweet with befuddlement: Of course he has class, because he has money, because, at his penthouse in New York, even the filigrees have filigrees. And anyway, his current residence is the White House, so suck it.
One can also imagine the president neglecting to consider the darker implications of a Jackie/Melania comparison: Here are two women, both married to men trailed by allegations of philandering. Here are two women who spent their time in the White House keeping up impeccable appearances. Both receive compliments for their “poise” and “grace.” But remember, the qualities of poise and grace are often forced by awkward situations. Jackie O is poised while Marilyn Monroe suggestively purrs “Happy Birthday” to her husband; Melania is poised while the country discusses whether hers paid off a porn star.
To be compared to Jackie O means entering into a land of wounded femininity, a land where the public’s respect is balanced equally by how sorry the public feels for you. It’s admiration, but a kind of display-case admiration; a sentiment driven less by loving you than by an obsession with keeping you in mint condition.
For Jackie, becoming a legend carried an unthinkable price: the murder of her husband while she sat next to him, followed by single parenthood, followed by a lifetime of being scrutinized by paparazzi. When she dared remarry, to shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, some onlookers were furious: “The reaction here is anger, shock and dismay,” reported the New York Times; a German newspaper claimed America had “lost a saint.”
And yet, 50 years later, here we are, still enthralled with the idea of Jackie. Wander into any yoga studio or juice bar, and you might see someone carrying a popular tote bag: “Dress like Coco, live like Jackie, act like Audrey, laugh like Lucy.” Spotting them makes me crazy because at least three of these women led deeply troubling or tragic lives. (Dress like Coco Chanel, secret Nazi agent?)
To make a Jackie O comparison means, at some level, revealing what you think about how women should behave, and what you think they should be: Always uncomplaining. Always graceful. Always chic, put together, beautiful, soft-spoken and gentle, even when their own lives are falling apart.
On Friday, the critics of Trump’s Jackie O statement focused on the idea that Melania didn’t deserve to be compared to Jackie O. We’re talking about something silly; we’re talking about airplane decor, I get that. But I also can’t help but think that the adoration of Jackie O was based on terrible things happening to her while she soldiered on and the public took pictures of her outfits. And she probably didn’t deserve to be compared to Jackie O, either.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more, visit wapo.st/hesse.