At least initially, America’s first foreign-born first lady was not a favorite of Washington’s social set. Louisa Catherine Adams, born in Britain and wife to President John Quincy Adams, had not catered to the city’s powerful elites, leading to a chill in relations at the start of her husband’s administration. Over time, however, she proved to be a shrewd asset, carefully charming and disarming many of her husband’s critics and rivals.
Nearly two centuries later, the second foreign-born American first lady has a chance to replicate that model. Hidden in the hoopla and hysterics of Trump’s inauguration was the very winning role played by Melania Trump. She was elegant, in looks and demeanor evoking Jacqueline Kennedy. She was thoughtful, offering a gift from Tiffany’s to the outgoing first family. And she was sympathetic, even among Trump’s Twitter hate mob. A video of Mrs. Trump supposedly frowning at her husband once he turned away from her on the dais promptly led to the hashtag: #FreeMelania. (The idea that the first lady is a tormented victim, crying out for help, may be the most positive view anyone associated with the Trump presidency has received from the Twittersphere to date.)
In other words, Melania Trump has power. The kind of power that just might be able to convince the millions of Americans and foreigners who don’t like, who even fear, Donald Trump that he is not a solitary, impulsive, dangerous monster. The kind of power that could begin to provide a counternarrative for the administration after 15 days of protests, bureaucratic mutinies, damaging leaks and middling approval ratings. That is, if the White House deploys the first lady in the right way. Here are a few ideas:
1. Ambassador of American greatness
Every first lady tends to take on a special topic of interest to define her tenure—Barbara Bush, for example, chose literacy, and Michelle Obama focused on childhood obesity. In keeping with the tone of the Trump administration, one can imagine that Mrs. Trump might well pursue something a bit more pointed—defending American exceptionalism. After all, who better to underscore President Trump’s famous pledge to “make America great again” than the one person in his immediate orbit who came to America by choice?
Melania Trump comes from an area of the world that knew the daily horrors of war, deprivation, poverty, authoritarianism and political persecution. She knows better than many who were born here what a blessing and a wonder America is, and how important it is to keep the country strong and prosperous and free.
As a result, Mrs. Trump could play the provocative role of encouraging a greater appreciation of America among her own citizens—advocating the teaching of American civics in high schools and colleges, encouraging younger generations to understand and learn the lessons of the Cold War, etc. She could write a children’s book on American greatness.
As a tireless champion of the United States and the administration’s view of its perceived slights, Melania Trump not only would appeal to millions of voters who supported her husband but also make inroads with other patriotic-minded Americans in the heartland who hesitated to cast ballots for the mercurial billionaire. If she’s lucky, she might even encourage a tongue-lashing from Hollywood celebrities like Meryl Streep—who somehow decided that attacking football might appeal to middle Americans. Uh, not so much.
2. Defender of legal immigration
As part of her duties as an “American greatness” ambassador, Mrs. Trump could reorient perceptions about the administration’s views toward immigration. Pundits, celebrities and various media outlets often blur the lines between legal and illegal immigration. After all, it’s much easier to attack someone for being anti-immigration in general than for being anti-illegal immigration.
As an immigrant herself, Mrs. Trump is of course the ideal person to go on offense and to reassure millions of first, second and third-generation American immigrants that our country has a place for them. Perhaps the first lady could attend select immigration ceremonies and even preside over a swearing-in ceremony. She could invite legal immigrants to the White House to demonstrate the importance of welcoming to our nation those who follow the rules and avoid law breaking.
3. The first diplomat
Like it or not, the administration is going to need allies around the world, particularly its traditional partners across the Atlantic such as the member states of NATO. The president is off to, shall we say, a unique start in this regard, having made many longtime allies wary about the United States’ commitment to them. At some point this will have to change, and what better way for the government to cultivate warmer relations with European capitals than to send as its emissary a former European?
Through speeches, receptions and tours across the Continent and perhaps in other countries closely allied with the United States, like Australia, Canada and Mexico, Mrs. Trump can provide a vivid example to the world of America’s continued interest. The charm offensive could include a visit to her homeland, ideally in the company of her own relations and, ideally, the president himself. This won’t exactly be the modern equivalent of Jack Kennedy’s famous visit to France, in which his wife was mobbed by well-wishers and he charmingly declared, “I’m the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris”—but it would be a good start.
4. Woman of mystery
Perhaps instinctively or through the advice of canny advisers, Jacqueline Kennedy and Nancy Reagan both recognized an important truth about public relations: People always want something they can’t have. Both women, private and glamorous in their own ways, always kept some part of themselves in reserve from the press and the public. (Mrs. Kennedy, for example, never even wrote a memoir while she was living.)
By design or accident, Melania Trump remains even more inaccessible than her predecessors, a feat all the more miraculous during one of the most scrutinized and debated presidential campaigns in history. The first lady has revealed very little about her own thinking, her own opinions or even her own life story. (Despite being highly attuned to the many twists and turns of the 2016 campaign, I had to look up her maiden name to write this article—Knauss). Mystique is a rare commodity in politics—and it could be an enormous asset for Trump because when she chooses to speak up for the administration, people will cranes their necks to listen.
What we do about Mrs. Trump—or at least think we know—is that politics is a foreign art to her (no pun intended), and a vocation that may even bore her. This, too, works for her. Most regular people, outside of the D.C. bubble, feel exactly the same way. She has her own career and own interests that she manages on her own, and every so often when she does speak there’s a suggestion of steel behind her glamorous visage. Showing just a little more of that—in a few carefully managed and timed interviews—would make her an even more sought-after star.
5. Character Witness
By far the most important thing Melania Trump can do is reassure the American people that they have not elected a frightening caricature. The first lady, presumably, is as close to the president as anyone. She has known him for nearly two decades and been married to him for 12 years; they share a young child. It might be helpful if she told the American people something about why.
She can—and should—do this in her own way, in what feels authentic to her. Not by “accidentally” getting photographed dancing in their bathing suits, like Bill and Hillary Clinton. Or complaining about Trump’s refusal to pick up his socks, as Michelle Obama once complained of her own husband. But it would be helpful to know a bit more about what drew the Trumps together, and keeps them together.
It didn’t help matters that there was little acknowledgement of the Trump’s recent wedding anniversary. (Mrs. Trump in fact departed the White House for New York that very day, presumably leaving her husband to mark the occasion alone.) There’s something interesting—maybe even refreshing?—about the fact that neither Trump seems to care what people think about their relationship. But it is a relationship that, whether they like it or not, will be gossiped about, analyzed and discussed for the rest of the president’s time in office—and likely in history book for many decades later. People will gossip no matter what she does. But she can choose to let them think the worst—or give them a reason to think something better.