The best anecdote I ever heard about a first lady involved Laura Bush. Early in her relationship with George W. Bush, she was taken to his family’s compound in Maine, where Bush kin busied themselves with preppie jock activities like boating or tennis or touch football. “And what do you do, Laura?” asked Bush’s grandmother. “I read, I smoke, and I watch,” replied the retiring Laura.
Laura Bush seems never to have cared much for the spotlight she was forced to share with her husband, but as the wife of a governor and then president, she gritted her teeth and did her best impersonation of a political wife. I interviewed her once, on the eve of the first national book fair, of which she was a sponsor (she had been one of the founders of the highly successful Texas book fair, and reading was truly a passion). In the few minutes I was allotted, I tried with no success whatsoever to get her off-script, to say anything spontaneous, but she had her talking points and would not be diverted. I remember us sitting there outside the Library of Congress, and I remember wishing I were anywhere else and thinking she probably felt the same.
I often thought of Laura Bush while reading Free, Melania: The Unauthorized Biography, Kate Bennett’s thoughtful life of Melania Trump. Like Bush, Melania is no fan of the spotlight, her wardrobe choices to the contrary notwithstanding. She is, in fact, so intensely private that, as Bennett notes, she has been called the Greta Garbo of the East Wing. She does what she has to do as first lady but clearly takes little joy in the role.
The big difference between Laura Bush and Melania Trump is that Bush had years of experience as a politician’s wife before she entered the White House. So, private and shy though she may have been, she had at least an inkling of the fishbowl existence she would endure in Washington. Mrs. Trump not so much. As a former model and the wife of a rich man and reality TV star, she knew her way around a runway and red carpet, but the judgy, prying looky-loo culture of politics was foreign ground.
So, naturally, she’s stumbled more than once, as when she donned a pith helmet (colonialism!) on a trip to Africa. Or in her poorly focused first lady initiative Be Best. Or in her speech to the 2016 GOP convention when she plagiarized Michelle Obama (as Bennett points out, Melania did not write the speech but neither she nor her speechwriter, or anyone else in the Trump campaign’s usual gang thought to vet the text; this, though, was for Melania the most important teachable moment and one, judging by subsequent events, that she took to heart: Madam, you are on your own).
But the takeaway from Bennett’s book is how little her subject has stumbled. If you come to this biography hoping for dirt or salacious revelation (and surely Bennett’s publisher hoped you will by calling this book “unauthorized”), you’ll be disappointed. The only gossipy facts I gleaned from this bio are that Melania has a tough time putting up with “Look at me!” Ivanka and doesn’t get on too well with Karen Pence. Oh, and Donald Trump insists on having a lock on his bedroom door in the White House, which begs the question, who does the most protected man on the planet think is going to barge in on him in the middle of the night? Oh, one more great fact: what’s the most famous National Park that almost no one knows is a National Park? The White House.
Unlike all the other Trumps, Melania loathes nearly all publicity and certainly any that she can’t totally micromanage. Also unlike all other Trumps, she thinks before she opens her mouth and then says as little as possible. Through no fault of Bennett’s, there is not one noteworthy Melania quote in this book, not one. Melania entered the White House as a mystery to the American people, and if she has her way, that’s how she will leave. Not for nothing did Maureen Dowd dub her the “Slovenian Sphinx.”
Melania’s first priority upon entering the White House was to protect her privacy and that of her son, Barron, and that she has done relentlessly. Only this week she angrily tweeted at a House impeachment witness for making a joke about Barron’s name, even though the joke was not at Barron’s expense but his father’s. The message was clear: You so much as mention my son in public discourse and I’ll come after you.
A journalist for CNN, Bennett is the sole reporter who covers Melania exclusively, and she knows her subject well. She even admires her, and what she admires most is Melania’s resolute refusal to play the hypocritical game of political wife. After the Stormy Daniels/Karen McDougal news broke, Melania took a separate car to the State of the Union address and wore a white pants suit, even though everyone knows her husband hates pants suits. When the president forgot his wife on the runway in Israel and then bumblingly, belatedly tried to grab her hand, she swatted it away. She made opposing cyberbullying part of her Be Best platform over the protestations of her husband and ignored him again during the fallout over separating children from their parents at the border: he begged her not to go to Texas to see the damage for herself; she went anyway.
More than that, Bennett argues, Melania is not a victim nor, in all likelihood, pining for the day when she can divorce her boorish husband. She knows their marriage is transactional, and she’s comfortable with that. When someone once crassly asked if she would have married Donald Trump if he weren’t rich, she replied by asking if her questioner if he thought Trump would have married her if she weren’t beautiful. By all accounts, the Trumps depend on each other, and she is the only person who can give him hell for things he says and does and not only get away with it but make him listen.
Bennett concludes: “Whatever you think of Melania—insipid trophy wife, clotheshorse, tone-deaf Marie Antoinette, enabler of one of the most divisive presidents in recent history, or a woman who spent her childhood and formative years in a poor communist country, who speaks five languages, who privately spends her time visiting sick children, who is a fierce protector of her child and keeps a noble grace and silence—Melania Trump is impossible to ignore. Say what you will about her, what is clear is that Melania Trump is unlike any other first lady.”
All I know is, thanks to Kate Bennett, every time I see a picture of Donald and Melania Trump, I’ll be thinking, lady, you deserve better.