Melania Trump, the most impenetrable member of the Trump family, closed the second night of the Republican convention with a speech from the newly redone Rose Garden touching all the themes of prior speakers but in a kinder and gentler way. Surprisingly, at the outset she addressed the virus the rest of the speakers treated as disappeared, just as Donald Trump does. She brought it up with sympathy for those suffering, gratitude for those fighting it, and then pivoted to the company line that the president would soon find a cure.
Most curious was choosing a convention speech to address her murky immigration status on a night when Trump turned recently naturalized citizens into extras in an infomercial for how he lets the right people in. Melania went romantic: How great America is for allowing people to come here “for a dream and make it a reality.” She thanked her parents in the barely socially distanced and largely unmasked audience for all the help they give her having moved to a nearby suburb after benefiting from the chain migration her husband rails against.
For the suburban housewives, as Trump calls voters he’s trying to attract, Melania had a “special message” about how to talk to your children about the downside of technology, a reverence to her Be Best campaign. She says she has days she looks for wisdom with “so many lessons to teach my son.”
That was as personal as Melania got as she mostly talked impersonally about her husband, taking at least three big whacks at the media on his behalf for their “unprecedented attacks” on a man so authentic and honest. She warned against unspecified “gossip,” which may be a reference to all the books by family, friends, and high-ranking aides coming out that draw a different picture than the one she presented Tuesday night. Whatever you think of the speech, it accomplished one important goal in putting her first convention speech in 2016 behind her, the one in which she lifted passages from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech.
Unlike most first ladies, she didn’t really try to show the softer side of a tough man, as a husband, as a father who tosses a ball or helps with homework. She left the podium with Trump as the White House directed cameramen followed them hand-in-hand into the West Wing. That staged walk did little to negate the impression, given when she jerks her hand away from his, not to brush her hair out of her eyes or keep her skirt from blowing in the wind, but because she—like 60 percent of the country—can’t stand him.
In a few days the country will get a more penetrating look at Melania from Stephanie Wolkoff’s Melania and Me: The Rise and Fall of My Friendship with the First Lady. A close friend and planner of fashion galas who once worked at Vogue, Wolkoff comes off in publicity materials as Henry Higgins transforming Pygmalion from a “rough-cut gem” (a model who posed nude for British GQ on Trump’s private jet wearing nothing but baubles, handcuffs, and a pistol) ) to a “precious diamond,” as the book’s promotional material put it.
At first, Wolkoff was an unpaid adviser, but in December 2016 she formed a company to “create the look and feel” of the inauguration. She billed the White House $26 million, with $1.6 million going to her for six weeks' work. When those charges came out in February 2018, Melania emailed Wolkoff that her services would no longer be needed.
Which accounts for the “fall” in the title. What’s making the book a must-read is that Wolkoff, according to journalist Yashar Ali, taped conversations with Melania complaining about the president, his family, and, most pointedly, his daughter Ivanka, who served as an ersatz first lady while Melania stayed behind in Manhattan. The ostensible reason was for Barron to finish school, but according to an earlier blockbuster, The Art of Her Deal, by the Washington Post’s Mary Jordan, the real reason was actually to renegotiate her prenup. Melania wanted her deal to reflect that the election lengthened her sentence by four, and possibly, eight years.
If Melania is caught on tape dissing Ivanka and her posse as “snakes” trying to best her in a series of turf wars, as reported, that’s a Lifetime movie. But if she’s heard complaining about the Access Hollywood tape, which she publicly forgave Trump for, or his many affairs—his one-night stand with Stormy Daniels and his alleged 10-month affair with Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal in 2006, both just after Melania gave birth—or about any of the dozens of other women who have charged her husband with sexual assault, it won’t just move swing voters away from the president. It will cut into his base.
The dam can break quickly on sexual scandals, as it did this week when evangelical leader Jerry Fallwell, Jr. was forced out as president of Liberty University after revelations about his unusual and un-Christian sex life. If suddenly it’s not all right with Melania, all the tax cuts and judges in all the world won’t be enough to justify Christians voting for him.
On the public stage, whatever their titles, Ivanka is still “first” in ways that count—her father’s favorite child and go-to-adviser who married someone Dad could dominate; a reliable apologist for Trump’s worst acts and the woman he famously wanted to date if only she weren’t his daughter. Melania keeps busy—although not happily so, according to Wolkoff—with her child, her parents (who moved to a Washington suburb after Trump made them legal), and her cyberbullying project, while Ivanka is meeting with world leaders about trademarks on her Chinese-made wares. Melania spoke Tuesday; Ivanka will introduce her father at closing ceremonies Thursday night.
Watching Melania, you don’t want to blame her. She didn’t ask for any of this. But like her husband, she hasn’t risen to the occasion. It’s hard to forget her trip to the border to visit immigrant children her husband had caged wearing a designer jacket reading “I Really Don’t Care, Do U.” It wasn’t enigmatic, but an outright rejection of what’s asked of first ladies, which is to care.
Other first ladies engaged premier landscape architects and historians before touching a leaf on the White House grounds. But Melania clear-cut the garden, the 60-year old crab apples and the red roses gone to add infrastructure for audiovisual equipment, cameras, lighting and paving, the better to stage Trump’s outdoor briefings—made necessary by the pandemic he largely ignores—and do so in time for the convention moments that no other president would dare to have had in the White House.
As Melania spoke Tuesday night, it was hard to concentrate as you watched her on a patch of hallowed ground altered at the whim of new but temporary residents. It’s a reminder that what took decades to grow can’t be easily replaced. Nor can so much else.