This was a week of stark contrasts for the office of the first lady. The nation mourned the death of Barbara Bush, one of the nation’s most beloved first ladies, and witnessed something of a public rebirth of our current first lady, Melania Trump, who received rave reviews as hostess of the state dinner for France’s president on Tuesday.
Despite concentrated public interest in Trump (her white wide-brimmed hat alone nearly broke the Internet), she has not been as publicly active as her predecessors. And her few public appearances have often been made controversial. Trump has been criticized for apparently plagiarizing former first lady Michelle Obama’s Democratic National Convention speech, for choosing cyberbullying as her signature policy initiative, and for wearing stilettos aboard Air Force One to visit Hurricane Harvey victims.
But that criticism also has been criticized. “The Left makes sure nothing is off limits to politics,” said Tina Lowe of the detractors in the National Review after the stiletto incident. One Washington Post reader accused fashion critic Robin Givhan of trying to “enrage the reader with the fashion of a person who was not elected” in her article about the first lady’s heels. When Jimmy Kimmel made a joke about Trump’s accent after she read to children at the White House Easter Egg Roll, the resulting firestorm was so intense that the late-night talk show host eventually apologized.
A similar discussion swirled around Bush’s funeral last week. Although some praised the former first lady for her grace and grit and love of family, others pointed to more controversial moments in her biography, including Bush’s comments that Hurricane Katrina was “working well” for the people uprooted by the storm and that Anita Hill had smeared “good man” Clarence Thomas. Fresno State professor Randa Jarrar tweeted that Bush was an “amazing racist,” adding: “I’m happy the witch is dead.”
The backlash for taking aim at Bush was swift and emanated from all corners of politics. “It’s quite appalling that someone would use the death of a beloved figure like Barbara Bush to drag her memory through the mud,” Siraj Hashmi wrote for the Washington Examiner. “It’s indecent to let politics erase everything admirable about a person, especially at the moment of her death,” Michelle Goldberg wrote for the New York Times.
Debates surrounding the legacies of public figures are nothing new, but what is striking is the degree to which arguments over Bush and Trump center not on the veracity of the various critiques but on their propriety.
All of this back-and-forth raises a question that the nation has never quite fully answered: Is the first lady of the United States fair game?
The public can be forgiven for possessing a confused, at times contradictory notion of the office of the first lady. First ladies are unelected, un-appointed, unpaid and unmentioned in the Constitution. They participate in cookie baking contests and respond to media inquiries about their fashion choices. After Trump’s apparent plagiarism of the Obama speech, one columnist urged the public to “leave Melania alone,” noting that she is “not a campaign adviser” and that “her speech would have been fluff even if it had been 100% original” — a defense that manages to feel like an insult.
On the one hand, it seems unfair to criticize a person who did not choose this job. And it seems especially unfair to criticize that person because of something her spouse did — critiques that were made of Hillary Clinton repeatedly and continue to be made of Trump, who is often dragged into conversations about her husband’s sexism.
But my research also shows that first ladies do more policy advocacy and public relations work than any official presidential surrogate. They have highly professionalized and congressionally funded staffs, have more access to presidents that anyone in the administration and wield immense influence over matters of global import.
And the strange amalgam of responsibilities with which first ladies are tasked has been intentionally cultivated by successive administrations, which struggled to balance first ladies’ valuable attributes as surrogates (as family members, they can boost perceptions of presidential character in convincing ways) with the public’s reluctance to have an unelected person influencing policy too directly.
Following Clinton’s disastrous attempt to advance health-care reform in the 1990s and the sharp public criticism surrounding it, the first lady’s role was initially restored to the ceremonial status quo. But in short order, presidential spouses’ unique ability to enhance White House communications proved too irresistible to leave first ladies out of the political arena for good.
The modern office of the first lady that resulted is a highly strategic, public-facing operation that expects to deal with intense scrutiny and is structured precisely to do so. The role of first lady is fundamentally a messaging role.
The ace the East Wing has up its sleeve that the West Wing does not is the voluntary nature of the role of first lady. That means presidential spouses can claim credit for their public activities, especially because they are not required to do anything, and when they slip up, the White House can leverage the same unofficial status to portray the first lady as a beleaguered altruist.
As I show in my book, “On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today,” first ladies have taken full advantage of this special status, advocating in effective but subtle ways for the president’s policy initiatives while participating in apolitical events so as to appear to remain above the partisan fray.
This strategy reached a peak in the Bush and Obama administrations. Almost 25 percent of Laura Bush’s public remarks and 30 percent of Michelle Obama’s public remarks were campaign speeches. An even larger share were speeches about their initiatives, handpicked projects aimed to improve public opinion of the administrations’ policy agendas under an apolitical veil. Bush’s literacy initiative was a perfect vehicle for promoting No Child Left Behind. Obama’s program to combat childhood obesity — “Let’s Move!” — helped frame the Affordable Care Act.
Bush and Obama also gave numerous speeches on foreign and domestic policy, but rarely without mentioning their personal connection to a topic. Bush often leaned on her professional background as a librarian and teacher, for example, and Obama made constant references to being a mother when she talked about health-care reform.
To make matters even more complicated, first ladies often make policy pitches through alternative media, appearing on “Ellen” or late-night, reality or scripted television to talk about their projects, further reinforcing the idea that they are outsiders with no political ax to grind, just everyday mothers and wives talking about everyday things.
And these appearances work. In addition to marginally improving public opinion of the policies that spouses mention and the presidents who sponsor them, first ladies have been able to maintain levels of fame and popularity over the course of their husbands’ administrations that most politicians could never dream of.
Despite appearances, the modern first lady is all but a de facto politician, and should be regarded as such. Her public comments should be treated with the same degree of seriousness that goes into crafting them behind the scenes. But because of the intense and concerted effort to create an apolitical image, direct attacks on presidential spouses are guaranteed to elicit fierce reaction.