‘The most pervasive, idiotic stereotype … in American political history is that the wives did nothing — when in reality, it is the most pliable and malleable position in the White House,’ one historian told Moneyish
Melania Trump’s “Be Best” platform has the potential to be great.
The First Lady rolled out her new three-pronged children’s initiative in the Rose Garden on Monday, vowing to tackle well-being, social media use and the opioid epidemic’s effect on kids and families. The campaign will “champion the many successful well-being programs that provide children with the tools and skills required for emotional, social and physical health” and “promote established organizations, programs, and people who are helping children overcome some of the issues they face growing up in the modern world,” according to the White House.
“As a mother and as First Lady, it concerns me that in today’s fast-paced and ever-connected world, children can be less prepared to express or manage their emotions, and oftentimes turn to forms of destructive or addictive behavior such as bullying, drug addiction or even suicide,” Trump said. “I feel strongly that as adults, we can and should be best at educating our children about the importance of a healthy and balanced life.”
The announcement came the same day a CNN poll conducted in early May put FLOTUS’s favorable rating at 57% — 10 points higher than it was in January.
But Trump’s platform is surprising in its multi-issue approach, rather than a more “targeted and specific” initiative launched specifically to support the administration’s overarching goals, said Princeton University lecturer Lauren Wright, author of “On Behalf of the President.” Also surprising is Trump’s decision to forge ahead with her anti-cyberbullying platform, she said, given the East Wing likely saw “accusations of hypocrisy coming from miles away.” “What that tells us is she must care an awful lot about this, and she must not care very much (either) what people think of that, or what the opportunities are to maximize her effectiveness,” she added.
Tackling just the opioid crisis, Wright said, would have been “a sufficiently narrow, understandable (issue) related to the President’s policy agenda.” “She’s expressed an interest in it … That alone would check a lot of boxes, as far as what past First Ladies have done,” she said.
But the broadness does allow for “flexibility and change,” Wright said: “It’s her first stab at this, and so having a three-pronged agenda does allow her some flexibility to move. Let’s say she starts working on cyberbullying and she decides that’s more difficult … She has two other prongs to work on,” she said. “I expect these efforts to become more finely tuned and specific over time.”
“Be Best” also squares well with FLOTUS’s demonstrated interest in children, said Myra Gutin, a Barbara Bush biographer and author of “The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century.” “I had watched her reading to kids in hospitals and seeing them at the Easter Egg Roll,” Gutin told Moneyish, “and I was hoping when she came out with an initiative, that it would have something to do with children.”
Thank you to all who attended yesterday’s launch of #BeBest. I will continue focusing on ways to help children be their best selves. Please visit https://t.co/npPChhBGPT to learn more! pic.twitter.com/dMsSJHgMBs
— Melania Trump (@FLOTUS) May 8, 2018
First Ladies have historically been “extremely special surrogates” who can leverage their unofficial “outsider” status to great effect, Wright said. “The most pervasive, idiotic stereotype … in American political history is that the wives did nothing — when in reality, it is the most pliable and malleable position in the White House,” historian Allida Black, a research professor of history at George Washington University, told Moneyish. “You can do whatever you want with it, and in whatever public or discreet way you choose.” In fact, Black ventures, “I could spend four days telling you about what women did in the last century alone.”
Black says she just wants these women to “get credit.” “They give up their lives, too, and many of them are not happy there. And they make great personal sacrifices — financially, in terms of their own health, in terms of time with family and friends — to really serve the nation as best they can,” she said. “They try hard, and they risk a lot — and regardless of party or their status in popular history, they give to the country, and their contributions should be recognized, too.”
Black rattles off several: Ellen Wilson, Woodrow Wilson’s first wife, devoted her time to slum clearance and accessible housing for poor white people in Washington, D.C.; Lou Hoover involved herself with the Girl Scouts and food conservation. Eleanor Roosevelt championed public arts projects and racial justice campaigns, Jackie Kennedy oversaw the preservation of D.C.’s Lafayette Square, and Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson supported conservation efforts. Pat Nixon traveled to Africa, while Betty Ford spoke candidly about cancer.
Nancy Reagan “really helped define for the public what the tenor of the Reagan administration was,” Black added, while Barbara Bush helped shape the national dialogue on AIDS. Hillary Clinton, during her eight years in the White House, was a staunch supporter of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and started both the federal grant program Save America’s Treasures and the White House sculpture garden; Laura Bush spearheaded the National Book Festival and an Afghan women’s initiative. Michelle Obama targeted childhood obesity with her healthy-eating campaign and started a mentoring program.
The slogan-based approach seen in recent decades — Obama’s “Let’s Move” and Reagan’s anti-drug abuse “Just Say No,” for example — traces back to Roosevelt and her Depression-era book, “It’s Up to the Women,” Black said. Lady Bird’s tenure was marked by her push for “highway beautification,” which ultimately became the title of a bill passed by Congress. And Betty Ford urged people to “vote ‘yes’” on the Equal Rights Amendment. “So while ‘Just Say No’ may stand out in our cultural memory as the first,” Black said, “it’s really the most noticeable.”
Part of a First Lady’s clout, Wright added, comes from her ability to “choose a platform that is meant to frame the President’s policy agenda … (but) does not appear to be policy-related itself.” Laura Bush’s Afghan women’s project, Wright said, effectively helped frame the War on Terror as a “humanitarian effort rather than a military intervention”; Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” helped frame her husband’s signature Affordable Care Act.
“People do evaluate them differently, and they listen to them in a different way than they listen to other surrogates,” Wright said. “They see them as these kind of personal players that don’t have a vested interest in political outcomes.” Wright’s own research, for example, has found Melania Trump to be a far more effective surrogate in influencing public opinion of her husband than Vice President Mike Pence, former Trump campaign surrogate Chris Christie, or even First Daughter Ivanka Trump.
As for “Be Best,” Black advised Trump to get “the smartest, most caring people you can find to help you make this work.” And Gutin urged FLOTUS to “go out and really sell it”: “It’s not out of the ordinary … nor would it be unexpected, if she were to have some surrogates who also went on the road and talked about the issue,” she said. “But for it to be most effective and for it to be identified with her, yeah, she’s got to do the appearances.”
Trump will have backing from government agencies, the private sector and nonprofits, Wright pointed out, “because everyone wants to work with the First Lady.” “They want to attach themselves to this positive, very popular figure,” she said, “so I would say take full advantage of that.”
“You can only be as active as you want to be. But if you want to help the administration, if you want to be a player, then you can have a tremendous effect,” Wright said. “I think no matter how broad or specific her agenda is … because of the status of First Ladies, she will have support. And she has a lot of potential to do a lot of good for a lot of people.”
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