Melanie Trump, A Bess Truman for the Twenty-First Century

Melania Trump isn’t channeling Jackie Kennedy – she’s channeling Bess Truman.

Last week marked a new uptick on coverage of the new First Lady – not for where she was, but where she wasn’t.

She was only briefly spotted on the tarmac at Palm Beach, Florida, striking a pose, a political Garbo, thought the accent isn’t Swedish.

A tarmac spotting.

Consider the panting for some sign of interest from the presidential wife absent from our nation’s capital.

US Weekly anxiously announced that Melania Trump may never come live at the White House on good authority – that wasn’t from her.

Anna Harrison, who never moved into the White House.

In the Sunday New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd quoted an historian who declared that no presidential wife since Abigail Adams had ever dared not to come live in the White House, somehow ignoring poor, old Anna Harrison who never left her Ohio farm for the the executive mansion. Then again, even when her husband was President, Americans forgot about poor, old Anna Harrison.

Hopping she shows.

The Washington Post worried that she would not preside over the annual Easter Egg Roll as if no First Lady has ever failed to do so – many skipped it in many a year, and one notable one never attended at all. Mrs. Kennedy.

Jackie. Jackie. Jackie. For over half a century, the media has been heralding the return of the beloved First Lady Kennedy in various incarnations.

The only one. 

Nancy Reagan was to be the “Republican Jackie,” Hillary Clinton the “global Jackie,” Michelle Obama the “African-American Jackie.”

Now, Melania Trump is drum-rolled out as a sort of “Slavic Jackie,” with her hint of glamorously withheld presence intended to intrigue and heighten mystery.

Jackie Kennedy, however, isn’t descending from the heavens, so distinctly unique for a style always rooted in substance.

Never a model.

There is, however, the spirit of one First Lady who seems to have returned or at least influenced if not advised the new one.

Certainly, on all those shallow superficialities that are now defining national priorities necessary for immediate judgments, she was no willowy, continental fashion model.

Instead, she was short and stout, invariably dressed in gray or navy, with blond hair going white, coiffed into a poodle cut.

The Mrs. Ts.

She pinched a dollar, viewed housekeeping as an art, and expressed displeasure with a disdainful “Well, there’s a fine howdy do.”

She was upper middle-class, happily middle-aged in the mid-century, and utterly middle western, as proudly stubborn as the mules of her beloved, native land known as Missouri.

Homey, fostering no grand project, focused on her family, a slight suggestion of gentle exasperation with the husband, and though often wearing a stoney glare in public when the photographers’  bulbs are flashing, she loved to laugh in private, this new First Lady seems to show signs of the old-school political wife long thought to be long gone.

Yes, Melania Trump is, in fact, the new Bess Truman.

Here’s six reasons why:

No Place Like Home:

Happiest at home.

Melania Trump is rather dramatically described these days as being holed up in her golden lair high above the metropolis, looking down on pedestrians and shorter buildings, seemingly more comfortably content at home in New York – so far – than in Washington.

Bess Truman loved her old gingerbread Victorian mansion in her birthplace and hometown of Independence, Missouri.

She delayed moving into the White House when her husband inherited the presidency in April 1945, upon the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt so his family had time to move out their possessions – and then fled as soon as she could, back home to Missouri and remained through most of the summer.

By the holiday season, she was ensconced back in her gingerbread palace, infuriated that the President came late and left early.

She never did consider the White House home, more like public housing.

Melania Trump picking up son Barron from school.

Helicopter Mom:

The reason Melania Trump has given for her decision to delay moving into the White House was direct and simple.

She wants to continue to raise her soon-to-be 11 year old son Barron in the life he knows best, going to the same school where he is enrolled. Just after the election, she had to announced that they would make the transition to Washington, D.C. after the term is over.

Bess Truman with daughter Margaret, was not pleased at being recognized and photographed.

Bess Truman was intensely close to her only child, daughter Margaret. She didn’t move to Washington as a Senate wife until she felt comfortable transferring her out of school in Missouri.

She didn’t want her daughter away at boarding school and when it came time for college, the First Lady successfully encouraged her to stay close, the president’s child going to nearby George Washington University. She monitored her activities and friends, and spent almost all her free time with her.

Melania Trump delivering her convention speech.

No Third Strikes:

It was a speechwriter who apparently lifted text from a speech by Michelle Obama and used it in drafting Melania Trump’s 2016 Republican National Convention speech, and her lawyer’s clarification of her recently refiled lawsuit against a British publication suggesting that she intended to profit from her role as First Lady. Still, it isn’t the speechwriter or lawyer blamed for the decisions, the First Lady already associated with a perception certain to linger as the finer details are forgotten. If mistakes happen in public life, as they inevitably do, it’s a lot less embarrassing when others do it on one’s behalf.

Bess Truman’s embarrassing fail at christening a plane.

When Bess Truman finally gathered enough confidence to accept invitations as a figure in her own right during her initial months as First Lady, it proved to be so publicly humiliating, it only bolstered her determination to merely steel herself throughout the presidency, becoming even more remote and inaccessible to the media and public.

The first incident famously involved her attempting to christen navy planes with a bottle of champagne – but the glass had not first been scored. She hit and hit and hit, but the bottle never broke. It was caught on newsreels and left her anxious and uncomfortable.

Months later, after accepting an invitation to a tea with the Daughters of the American Revolution, African-American Congressman Adam Clayton Powell insisted she rescind her acceptance since the organization’s headquarters remained racially segregated. Mrs. Truman not only refused to acquiesce, she never quite got the negative impression she left. There was no third strike.

Family Matters:

Although she granted a handful of interviews during the 2016 presidential campaign, Melania Trump broke with recent tradition in denying all media requests about her life and intentions since becoming First Lady. Last spring, after having cooperated with a GQ profile, she was alarmed to learn that the article’s author had discovered the fact that her father had a son by a woman other than her mother.

Their dads and moms.

For both women, not just children but parents have taken personal priority over being First Ladies.

Bess Truman’s father David Wallace, a friendly gentleman who never managed to make a substantial enough income to support his family, permanently altered their lives when he committed suicide, shooting himself in the early morning at home. It was a trauma that defined Bess Truman’s life and one never discussed once her mother and siblings had returned to Independence after leaving town for a period of time, out of societal shame. She never even told her daughter.

Once her husband became President, however, Mrs. Truman lived in terror that the fact of her father’s suicide would be discovered by the national press and reported, especially concerned about the potential affect of this on her ailing mother. Some believe it was the reason for her wariness about the press and her policy of never granting interview requests.

Melania Trump listens tentatively as her husband takes the mike.

Can it, Dear:

Last year, as the campaign was heating up, Melania Trump admitted to a reporter that she did her best to influence her husband into changing the tone of his spouting off his unfiltered opinions. Some further suspect that she was attempting to telegraph a message to him about his outbursts by declaring she was interested in addressing the rise in cyber-bullying and uncivil nature of social media.

Bess Truman with Winston Churchill, bracing for one of her husband’s speeches.

Bess Truman on numerous occasions attempted to cool her husband’s heated rhetoric. Once, Harry Truman was about to mail an angry letter he penned to the Soviet Ambassador who he accused of snubbing the First Lady by declining to attend a social event. When she got wind of it, Mrs. Truman raced down to the Oval Office and gave him a piece of her mind – and prevented the letter from being sent.  While listening to one of Harry’s rambling, ranting campaign speeches on a whistlestop, one of Bess’s friends was horrified to hear the President declare that his opponent was full of “horse manure.”

The First Lady shrugged her shoulders, cracking that it took her years just to get him to use the word “manure.”

Stare, Glare, Smile & Wave:

A blank glare was a defense armor in public, but the easy smile and laugh were familiar to their closest.

Having worked as a professional model for most of her life, beginning in childhood, Mrs. Trump has been accustomed to being told to put on a pouty look by photographers during hundreds of photo shoots. Now, as a political wife the flashbulbs are brighter and come in multiples. It would only seem natural to return to that default facial pose. It would be especially useful when thrust into an entirely new environment as a political spouse. While her “model stare” has seemingly become her signature, by all accounts she is a gentle and down-to-earth person and when among those she trusts, can’t help breaking into a sly smile. She’s learned fast to do this while waving to the masses.

Smiling waves.

Bess Truman was almost universally described by the Washington press corps that regularly covered her as “glum” and “grim” when asked to pose for photographs. Intensely private, her stiff, stoney expression became her default glare, her only defense while being in the one place she despised most – the center of attention. It even took her awhile to not just offer a stilted wave but to learn to smile simultaneously. Yet, within the trusting circle of her family and friends, this First Lady was known for her sharp wit, quick sarcasm and husky laugh that came easily. In both instances, it was easy, if glib, to read too much into their true personalities by the public faces they wore.

Of course, there are a few differences.

Eating in, eating out.

Mrs T I liked salty Missouri ham and a mess of greens.

Mrs. T II eats diamonds for breakfast.

Mrs. T II developed and marketed her own line of caviar skincare products.

Mrs. T I was mighty big on fishing.

Fishing, fish eggs.

Mrs. T II modeled in variously artificial scenarios, including a series with models that raised eyebrows because they wore nothing.

While hosting her Independence Tuesday Bridge Club, Mrs. T I and the girls raised their eyebrows when a staffer saw them dangling their legs in the Camp David pool because they wore no stockings.

It’s all just a matter of perspective. It is even possible to entirely despise everything the husband of a First Lady seeks to do and even find her complicit in hypocrisy and still understand her humanity.

Beneath it all, that necessary artifice of public persona however, are the human beings. That’s where, perhaps, the new First Lady seems to best channel the practical, sensible, friendly but firmly distant ladiest of First Ladies. That’s not such a bad thing.

Mrs. Trump, a new Mrs. Truman for our age.


Categories: First Ladies, The Trumans, The Trumps

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