Melania Trump Should Escape Washington
Earlier this month, a 10-year-old child asked Melania Trump where she would most want to go for the holidays. “A deserted island,” she replied. The first lady’s instinct is right on one score: The best thing she could do for her reputation and that of the president would be to get far away from Washington. But she should travel on her own to engage with people -- not to hide from them.
When she’s out of Washington and away from the president, “Melania Trump appears much more at ease and much more herself,” says Kate Andersen Brower, author of “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.” Take last month’s trip to Asia. The first lady was described by CNN as “stoic” when she was with her husband. But then she “lit up” when she broke off by herself for a calligraphy lesson with Japanese students. The Washington Post noted that the first lady won plaudits for her banter with the Pope in Italian at the Vatican in May and for her respectful visit to France on Bastille Day. Another sign the first lady loosens up a bit abroad came when she appeared to swat away the president’s attempt to hold her hand in Israel in May. (Some speculated this was because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wasn’t holding his wife’s hand.)
Melania Trump’s husband isn’t very popular in Washington, which makes events there tricky for her. Last month, the president’s national approval ratings hit a record low of 32 percent. So, it’s no wonder that the first lady isn’t a big presence in the nation’s capital. But this has fueled perceptions that she doesn’t like her role as first lady and didn’t want her husband to be elected. The president disavowed those claims in a tweet last month, reporting that Melania Trump “truly loves what she is doing” and always supported his political ambitions.
Of course, it would have been more appropriate and convincing to let the first lady say this for herself. But the place to do it isn’t Washington. Instead, Melania Trump could demonstrate this to the world by traveling to promote the causes she has selected as her platform. Brower says that, in many places abroad, where domestic partisan debates about things like tax reform are less salient, Melania Trump can still be seen as the glamorous wife of the president of a powerful country. It also helps that the first lady speaks six languages, including French and Italian.
Brower suggests that a kind of Audrey Hepburn or Princess Diana approach would work well for Melania Trump: the idea of a beautiful star who goes to work on important issues. She could visit kids in schools and hospitals to raise awareness of important issues like education and the opioid epidemic, which she has pledged to help fight. Brower says this approach can also work in red states, where people love the president and would be dazzled by the first lady because, even though they don’t find her to be relatable, they see her opulent life as aspirational.
Melania Trump isn’t alone in finding life outside Washington less constricting. As first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton also appeared more relaxed outside the beltway. In “First Women,” Brower reports that Clinton “had a ‘two-hundred-mile limit,’ according to veteran ABC reporter Ann Compton, who covered the Clintons:
In Washington, Hillary was very unapproachable, but the farther out of town she got the more accessible she became … The press had lots of personal time with her on those trips when they sat around and really talked, almost always off the record.
But as soon as Clinton returned to Washington, according to Compton, “the political walls went back up.”
So, here’s hoping Melania Trump acts on her Christmas wish to get out of Washington -- but that she does so by herself, so she can be free to act more like herself.