This has been the fortnight of the first ladies. Last week, the focus was on two former first ladies, one through mourning and fond admiring recollections, and one through yet another book of scathing analytical criticism. Barbara Bush was celebrated for her blunt dignity. Hillary Clinton was recalled for her campaign of blunt excuses for her own failures.
In death, Bush was praised as an old-fashioned matriarch speaking her mind with a sharp tongue, loved by family and lauded as the wife of one president and the mother of another. In life, Clinton has never been at home in the role of "wife of," and she took pride in not being the kind of wife and mother who stayed home and baked cookies. She yearned for an Oval Office of her own and blames everyone but herself for not getting there.
"They were never going to let me be president," Amy Chozick quoted Clinton as saying in "Chasing Hillary," a biography on her coverage of the 2016 Clinton campaign for The New York Times. "They," Chozick reports, included the "vast right-wing conspiracy," piggy forms of patriarchy, Wisconsin voters, former FBI Director James Comey and "white suburban women who would rather vote for a man who bragged about sexual assault than a woman who seemed an affront to who they were." The former first lady includes all the political reporters left and right with "big egos and no brains" who hounded her with questions about her emails.
It's not fair, perhaps, to make first ladies public figures, a role in nearly all cases they did not choose and was thrust upon them whether they liked it or not by virtue of the man they married. The exception is Clinton who, always ambitious for political power, set out to use the role as a stepping stone to the U.S. Senate, secretary of state and, ultimately, the Oval Office.
From Martha Washington onward, the ladies adapted to marriage with a president by living out promises spoken in their marriage vows, for better and for worse suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but enjoying the perks, pomp and prestige. This is the gilt by association that comes with marriage to the most powerful man in the world.
Melania Trump is still a work in progress as first lady, a beautiful model who enjoyed the sophisticated social life of New York society and came to Washington untutored and unprepared for the rough-hewn politics that follow all presidents to the White House. It was not an easy journey from her "golden fortress" in Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue to the demands of the mistress of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
On election night, when Donald Trump was declared winner, she had to have felt like Rachel Jackson, wife of Andrew Jackson, who, upon hearing that her husband had won the presidency, said she was pleased for him but "never wished it" for herself.
Rachel Jackson died before her husband was sworn in. Melania Trump could only delay her arrival to the White House for a few months, so as not to interrupt the school year of her son, Barron Trump, in New York. When she finally arrived, she was criticized for doing too little too late and then mercilessly mocked or publicly pitied as scandals of "other women" in her husband's past blossomed on the front pages.
More media attention has been paid to whether she allows the president to hold her hand than anything she has to say. This week, she not only held her husband's hand on the steps of the White House as they welcomed President Emmanuel Macron of France and his wife, Brigitte Macron, and then escorted them to their first state dinner; she was widely praised for her mastery of the details of the dinner, from the glittering gold plates and candelabras, to the pink cherry blossoms in tall black urns.
Nobody minded that she was gorgeous in a black Chantilly lace Chanel haute couture gown hand-painted with silver and embroidered with crystals and sequins, wearing it like the model she was trained to be. She might have been wounded by stray verbal shrapnel from ammunition aimed at her husband, but at dinner she stood above the gossipy fray, a hostess drawing on her own charm, skill and confidence.
"A man marries a woman, not a first lady," John F. Kennedy once said of his elegant wife, Jackie Kennedy. "She must fit her own personality into her own concept of a first lady's role." Or, to echo a famous exhortation directed at critics of a previous president many of us can remember, "It's time to let Melania be Melania."