Amid a global pandemic that has killed 150,000 Americans and is slowing like a train that just started to choo choo over a cliff, 100 days from an election that is the fifth consecutive most important election in our lifetimes, first lady Melania Trump will begin the important work of renovating the Rose Garden to more closely resemble its original 1960s design.
Finally! This is what we elected her for.
Some will say that rose gardening to the tune of the apocalypse is yet another gesture that is at best oblivious and at worst passive-aggressively cruel. Others will say that it’s a canny move by a classy lady who embodies tenacity in her public life. They’re both wrong. Melania’s push to apply her Be Best magic to the Rose Garden is perfect. It’s the perfect empty, image-obsessed gesture from a person who is almost certainly not going to perform the actual physical labor of the task, meant to hark back to a bygone era that we now realize had a lot wrong with it.
Melania gets a lot of flak for her “work” as first lady. Some of it she didn’t earn; for example, it isn’t her fault that her husband is a terrible president and therefore everything she does will be tainted by the stench of his failure. The position of “first lady” is also quite an anachronism. Hillary Clinton’s desire to turn it into a sort of modern policy partnership earned her the eternal disdain of the sort of person who still laughs at Lorena Bobbitt jokes. Even Michelle Obama and Laura Bush, two women who were able to perform the symbolic role with a modicum of ease, still seemed uncomfortable at times. That’s to be expected. The modern brilliant woman who would marry a man brilliant enough to be a good president would have to stoop to meet Americans’ expectations of what makes a “good” first lady. The first lady role is to American modernity what a Disney princess costume is to the Mayo Clinic.
But some of Melania’s moves as first lady have been so tone-deaf that there’s no way to explain them away as relics of an outdated role. They take effort. They take targeted ineptitude. Everybody knows about Be Best, which is a public awareness program, I think? Reading about it feels like my brain is being pelted by melted marshmallows. Nobody knows what Be Best did (does?). Nobody knows who it helped (helps?). Melania presented her signature program with all the panache of a sixth grader who waited until the last minute to do her science fair project, and then her mom did the whole thing for her. The program was as joyless as it was aimless. Here, look, I used baking soda and vinegar to make a volcano, for some reason.
But there are other minor “Melania, What Are You Doing?” hits, songs that weren’t radio singles but that the true fans know by heart. Like the time she decorated the White House for the December holidays as a space alien might decorate the White House if they mistook the December holidays as a celebration of bloodletting (2018) or bone collecting (2017). Or her wearing of the I Really Don’t Care Do U jacket to visit McAllen, Texas, where her husband’s ghoulish immigration policies were ripping small children from the arms of their undocumented parents. There’s all the glum, robotic public appearances beside her husband, the wind-tunnel grimace of a smile she issues and retracts as if by the push of a button. Her surly spokeswoman-turned-absent-press secretary-turned-surly-spokeswoman. The weird photo of her lovingly stroking rows of pills meant to represent deaths from the opioid epidemic. Or the hurricane stilettos! Remember the hurricane stilettos? Does Melania know how to walk around outdoors?
Which brings me to my next point: There’s no way that Melania knows the first thing about gardening, beyond pointing at a garden and instructing staff to “garden this” before returning to her lair. To believe that she’s going to revamp the Rose Garden would require a person to make a couple of leaps. One would have to believe that Melania Trump gained knowledge of the subtleties of rose gardening over the very short period of her recent adult life when she did not live in a golden box hundreds of feet above a Fifth Avenue Gucci store. Gardening requires its acolytes to walk around on dirt, often in shoes that are flat. Sometimes, practitioners of gardening get dirt on their clothes, or hands, or fingernails, arms, or face. Has Melania Trump ever gotten dirty? Gardening requires noticing the needs of living things outside her immediate family. Can Melania Trump do that?
Or maybe Melania knows more about being an Earth Mother than we’ve given her credit for. Maybe, in a few months the Gaia of Pennsylvania Avenue will present a revamped Rose Garden so resplendent in a light intense enough to distract us from the hellscape her husband has helped create. Or maybe this will be yet another weird episode in the weird tenure of one of America’s weirdest first families.