First lady of the United States is a hard job. It’s not formally defined yet entails many demands; it has an impact on history but no formal powers; it’s the focus of all eyes, but people like to make it clear nobody elected you. Its locus is the East Wing, which the West Wing considers the silly place. You must be guided by tradition but be open to novelty so no one accuses you of being boring.
Melania Trump has been a figure of sympathy, at least in this space, lauded for her grace, elegance and stoicism. She’s married to a man who, emotionally and intellectually, is not exactly in the middle of the bell curve. She wound up in a job she never particularly wanted, in a time of unprecedented national division. She has done it pretty well. She has brought chic, American glamour and beautiful manners to the world’s capitals. (There was the “I Really Don’t Care Do U?” jacket, but at least that was spirited.) She humbly presented a gift in a Tiffany box to the Obamas on Inauguration Day, while her husband forgot to help her out of their car. She has self-control, and the independence to disagree with her husband—when she said separating families at the border is no good, when she stood up for LeBron James after the president called him stupid. She’s slapped his hand away when he gropily attempts to portray normal unity. She’s put up with many scandals, some personally mortifying.
So it was a surprise to see her issue a hissy-fit of a statement about the deputy national security adviser, Mira Ricardel. “It is the position of the Office of the First Lady that she no longer deserves the honor of serving in this White House.” Yowza.
Granted, Ms. Ricardel’s public reputation suggests she’s quite a blunderbuss. But Mrs. Trump’s statement added to—and included her in, for the first time—the White House’s reputation for chaos, the sense that nobody’s in charge, that it’s all factions, head-butting and rumors about who’s going to get fired next. Wednesday Politico had a quote from an unnamed former White House staffer describing the atmosphere: “It’s like an episode of ‘Maury.’ The only thing missing is a paternity test.”
Also it was kind of a Hillary Clinton move. It is not the first lady’s job to hire and fire national-security staffers, any more than it was Mrs. Clinton’s to design a new health-care system.
Modern first ladies are rarely sissies, but when they make their moves, they do so privately, not publicly. When Nancy Reagan didn’t want someone around, she was peerless at planting the seed and upping the pressure. But she never made a public declaration that forced the public to have a view.
The oddest thing about Melania’s statement is that it lessens her power. The essence of her power is that she is a mystery. No one knows what she’s thinking. No one knows how she really views her husband and his presidency. She keeps herself apart and carries an air of deliberate opacity. She’s never made the mistake of asking to be understood.
Now, in moving aggressively, she has shocked Washington and provided an opening for already bubbling stories that actually she’s rather willful and ignores good advice. Those stories will come.
Here is what is for me the mystery of Michelle Obama: Like Melania she is glamorous and elegant, a beautiful woman and a disciplined one. I read her autobiography this week mostly to find the answer to a question.
I always wondered, knowing something of her life: Did she understand how fortunate she was? She won the Trifecta. Does she know it?
She came from a good family, solid and stable, which successfully transmitted love. Her parents’ economic circumstances were modest but stable—it wasn’t all foreclosures and moving and divorce and no money. And she was born with a solid, attaining mind, able to excel in academic work.
That is the Trifecta. People with that background these days are, no matter their color or economic level, almost American aristocracy. Solid family, solid framework, solid mind, built to rise—a lot of working-class Americans, white or black, would thank their lucky stars to come from that background. Most of them have to deal with brokenness, chaos, love that never coheres. And those things make it so much harder to live healthy constructive lives.
Love, stability and talent for something—there are a million kinds of talent to have—will set you firmly into the future. The rest is effort and luck, and Mrs. Obama had these too, working diligently and meeting a man with whom she could share an interesting life.
I had this question because when she was first lady, she often seemed to me to carry with her an air not of gratitude but of grievance.
The book makes clear she did know how fortunate she was, though she has struggled to incorporate it into her attitudes.
The best part focuses on her childhood. Her parents were fabulous. “My father, Fraser, taught me to work hard, laugh often, and keep my word.” Her mother, Marian, “showed me how to think for myself and use my voice.” They provided guidance, order and affection. The Robinson family lived in the upstairs apartment of a tidy, two-story brick bungalow that was owned by a relative who taught piano and directed a church choir. It was in a middle-class, racially mixed neighborhood where people owned their homes. There were relatives all around.
She remembers sitting on her father’s lap hearing him narrate a Cubs game. He loved jazz and art, had a solid union job for the city of Chicago, and wore a uniform to work. Her mother taught her to read early and took her to the public library.
This was an aspirational family.
It was hard for her to go from a racially mixed grade school to largely black classrooms, and later to a 90% white university, where she felt a differentness that was painful—“poppy seeds in a bowl of rice.” She was demoralized by assumptions she was there because of affirmative action.
But I wondered if she knows how universal, how apart from race, some of her more painful memories are. She had a terrible experience in high school with her college-placement counselor. Her heart was set on Princeton. The counselor looked at her record—top 10% of her class, National Honor Society—and issued a swift, dismissive judgment: “I’m not sure that you’re Princeton material.” Michelle was crushed, traumatized—then galvanized: I’ll show you.
When I was entering high school my guidance counselor looked at my messy self, my up-and-down grades, and told me that in the future I might, if I applied myself, become a clerk or a secretary. College was not for me. I’ll never forget that either. Even then, with nothing behind me, I was dreaming of something different. I didn’t feel “I’ll show you!”; I felt shame and confusion. It seemed early to write me off.
And yet here we are.
Never let idiots stop you.
She went to Princeton.