After President Trump discounted LeBron James’s intelligence on Twitter last week, first lady Melania Trump’s office issued a brief statement: “It looks like LeBron James is working to do good things on behalf of our next generation.” This statement led many to conclude that Melania sided with James, not her husband, in the social media spat.
Melania Trump is not known as an outspoken first lady. Yet this statement shows that she may be, at least in part, a kindred spirit to Betty Ford. And there’s more to Trump’s statement than taking sides in a Twitter war. Like Ford, Trump’s words show that she is concerned about her legacy and is willing to flex her first lady autonomy to preserve it.
First ladies have traditionally been helpmates, surrogates and supporters for their husbands. And it is still unusual, but not unprecedented, for a president’s wife to go on the record with a position contrary to her husband’s. But what’s a first lady to do when a president’s words threaten her own reputation, programs and legacy?
The first lady’s position is a peculiar one. First ladies are unelected. Yet, ever since Eleanor Roosevelt held news conferences and wrote newspaper columns, first ladies have been expected to talk to the public on a regular basis. And beginning with Jacqueline Kennedy’s campaign to restore the White House, first ladies have had their own platforms and agendas. In the decades since Kennedy, the first ladyship has become increasingly prominent and influential.
While they must take care to avoid damaging their husbands’ reputations, first ladies, like presidents, have their own legacies to shape and preserve. This necessitates speaking out on issues near and dear to first ladies’ hearts, lest outside perceptions molded by their husband’s policies shape their public images and legacies.
In 1971, Richard Nixon had two Supreme Court vacancies to fill. Pat Nixon wanted him to nominate a woman, and she went public about it. “Don’t you worry; I’m talking it up. … If we can’t get a woman on the Supreme Court this time, there’ll be a next time,” she told reporters. Ultimately, Richard Nixon nominated Lewis Powell and William Rehnquist. Pat Nixon was upset and embarrassed that her advice, which she had boldly proffered publicly, had gone unheeded.
Nixon highlighted how the first lady takes a risk when she speaks her mind, especially when her words do not line up with the president’s. Her successor, Ford, also regularly took that risk.
Ford viewed the first ladyship as a liberating position. She spent her life as a career politician’s wife, and the White House gave her a platform to speak her mind — including being frank about disagreements with her husband. “We’ve had our fights,” she told Morley Safer in a controversial “60 Minutes” interview.
She and Gerald Ford disagreed about whether he should put a woman in the Cabinet. “I won that one,” she said, referring to Carla Hills’s appointment as secretary of housing and urban development. “If I can get a woman on the Supreme Court bench, then I think that I’ll really … have accomplished a great deal.” Betty Ford viewed women’s appointments as an important part of her own legacy, and she was willing to disagree with her husband in public about it.
Ford’s willingness to speak out was not without controversy. Fellow female Republican Phyllis Schlafly and her STOP ERA group picketed the first lady outside the White House. Many Americans wrote to the White House to say that Ford’s lobbying was unrepresentative and unladylike. But the tide eventually turned and, at one point, Ford’s mail was running three to one in support of her ERA activism.
The ERA put Ford and her trademark forthrightness in the limelight. Heading into the 1976 campaign season, many on the president’s staff believed that the first lady was a political liability. However, her poll numbers were actually much higher than her husband’s, indicating that she was in step with a majority of the nation.
Partially because of this potential for political impact, this sort of free thinking and advocacy isn’t for every first lady.
Barbara Bush was a master at hiding her own opinions, especially on women’s issues, where she and her husband did not always agree. When asked about her personal views, she had a standard response: “I’m not going to tell you. I’m not running for public office. George Bush is.” In the era of family values, Barbara Bush knew that a first lady who vocally disagreed with her husband could damage him politically — especially in the increasingly conservative Republican Party.
In most regards, Melania Trump has hewed more toward a traditional first lady role — more Barbara Bush than Betty Ford. In May, she announced her Be Best initiative. Just like Nancy Reagan had drug abuse awareness and Bush had literacy, Be Best is Trump’s first lady project. Her legacy will hinge on how faithfully and well she executes this program.
In other words, her legacy will hinge on whether she encourages children to be kind, respectful and live healthfully. Her legacy will depend on how well she inspires children to use social media in positive ways. But that creates a tension, given that her husband is not always kind and respectful on social media.
Which may be one reason Melania Trump spoke out in defense of LeBron James. “As you know, Mrs. Trump has traveled the country and world talking to children about their well-being, healthy living, and the importance of responsible online behavior with her Be Best initiative,” said her statement. In commending James, she clearly had her own initiative, and therefore her own legacy, in mind.
Trump’s statement on James mirrored Ford’s sentiments about the first lady’s freedom of speech. “Just as she always has, the first lady encourages everyone to have an open dialogue about issues facing children today,” said her statement. With these words, though not as bold as Ford’s, Trump staked her claim to speak her mind. She is first lady, but she is also a free woman in a country that values free speech.
Her offer to visit James’s I Promise School in Akron was a conciliatory one. It also showed that her actions are not confined by her husband’s tweets.
Maybe more importantly, Trump was demonstrating that when her husband’s tweets run counter to her initiatives, she will safeguard her projects. Not only did the president’s tweet fly in the face of his wife’s social media campaign, but James’s I Promise School also happens to line up with the pillars of the Be Best initiative. Trump has her own historical legacy to shape and maintain, and she believes she is on the right side of history. One day historians will write books about her, too. And with her statement on James, though a mere 91 words long, she has given them, has given us, a historical golden nugget to mine.