Something about Melania Trump keeps people hopeful — insistently so, despite so much contrary evidence — that there’s a bigger story at work.
Maybe it’s simply her circumstance, existing as the immigrant wife of a President whose misogyny and xenophobia are such pronounced parts of his personal brand. Maybe it’s the occasional glimmer of seeming independence, gestures (a hand dropped, a steely forward gaze) that are read as part of an endless symbolic code; it would be poetic justice, the thinking seems to go, if the #resistance were coming from inside the house. And one line of thought is rooted less in politics than in fundamentals of narrative. Recent First Ladies like Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, and (of course) Hillary Clinton have been endlessly engaging media figures with evidently strong points-of-view all their own, and First Ladies have used television to transmit their pet causes since Jackie Kennedy opened the White House to America. We’re conditioned to assume the role has evolved vastly beyond the Mamie Eisenhower archetype, that the First Lady is a character who looms large in our shared psychic life.
And perhaps Melania does, too, in her relative absence from the public sphere. But in her first interview as First Lady, on ABC’s “20/20” Oct. 12, the wife of America’s reigning celebrity-in-chief seemed to shrink. Her real cause was not historical preservation or childhood literacy (or, certainly, the Be Best movement) but a defense of her husband premised on the idea that he has her unconditional support. The most pronounced traits to have emerged through the hourlong interview were one quality Melania shares with her husband — a refusal to brook deep contemplation — and one she does not. Married to an endlessly prolix speaker, the First Lady has painfully little to say, or at least little that she is willing to say. A figure about who so much ink has been spilled emerged on “20/20” as someone who refused to reward our attentions with anything but a steady party line.
In this, she is indeed different from her voluble husband, whose sentences often end up far from where they began, often with several rhetorical bombs deployed on the journey. Through editing or through terse, somewhat tense fact, the interview, especially in the beginning, proceeded in rapid-fire fashion, with questions getting as close to yes-no answers as the dignity of Melania’s office would permit. ABC’s Tom Llamas did a fine job of asking every question about which Melania-watchers might have been curious, but didn’t manage to budge the First Lady from certain core positions: When it comes to the White House? “I don’t feel like a prisoner. I’m enjoying it.” On whether the President supports her anti-bullying campaign, Be Best, which only entered the interview in ironic counterpoint to her husband’s manner: “He didn’t say not to do it. He understands that he is very tough on Twitter, but he understands I want to help the next generation.”
The latter quote indicates quite how elegantly Melania managed to split hairs over the course of her interview. She would at times put forward two effectively contradictory facts, with one toned down or modified for public consumption, simultaneously. (That Trump is, in fact, social media’s biggest bully of all would seem to fly in the face of Be Best’s mission, an element bridged in her telling with a humble “but.”) As regards the #MeToo movement, “I support the women, and they need to be heard. And also men, not just the women” — but the movement also had a tendency to go too far. So-called “chain migration” of the sort Melania’s own family has benefitted from is good, but “I believe in the policies my husband put forward, because you need to be vigilant.”
It was disappointing but not surprising to see how unreflective Melania was willing to be, or to present herself as. The difference, after years of chaos that would seem to demand meaningful thought on the part of everyone close to its center, is no longer meaningful. It’s likely that the same segment of the audience that thrilled to Melania seeming to slap her husband’s hand away early in his presidency will find hidden messages in her ABC interview, or to hold close the premise — stated by Melania and by talking-head interview subjects throughout, including, startlingly, fired Trump transition team head Chris Christie, gushing with praise — that she is a key moderating force on her husband. (The case cited is her pushing to end the separation of families at the border, which has hardly solved the massive crisis of separated families.) The question that was not asked on-air, as was notable in its absence, was some variation on “If you’re the moderating force, why aren’t you doing a better job?” Melania’s one real astringent note throughout was a seeming demand for more credit for what she has done and is doing — as when she claimed to be among the “most bullied” people on Earth. But praise that comes without accountability is just empty words, not that one senses that would bother the First Lady unduly.
Clips studded throughout the broadcast, of pre-First Lady interviews conducted with Melania, de-emphasized the magnitude of ABC’s get; they showed a person who, by training and seemingly by temperament, always lets her husband shine and has never had an off-message day in her life. But the stakes are different now than when Barbara Walters was speaking to the star of ascendant reality hit “The Apprentice” and his fiancée. Melania occupies an office that, historically, has been one of the most powerful perches from which to mount campaigns of rhetoric and emotion, pitches that aim for the heart. Rigidly sticking to a set of facts and self-beliefs, Melania stayed focused on holding her supporters’ minds; she cannot have won over too many detractors, and it hardly seemed she was trying anymore. For the subset of anti-Trump voters who see in her an avatar of quiet personal pushback, that she gave nothing at all will only keep them hunting harder. For the rest of viewers, Melania gave so little to talk about that she ensured her husband will remain the story, as is evidently most comfortable for both. Perhaps the story of the interview is Melania’s snow-white pith helmet, sitting strangely by her side on an end table as though she were “Out of Africa’s” Karen Blixen with access to a credit line at Dior. Melania had said during her Africa trip — as shown during “20/20” — “I wish people would focus on what I do, not what I wear.” But she did too little during the interview to keep us focused on her for long.