Melania Trump redefining the role of the first lady away from the White House
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
As President-Elect Donald Trump conducts numerous meetings with potential candidates to fill cabinet posts, there is another important part of the transition process moving into the White House. On Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016, the New York Post reported that First Lady Melania Trump and son Barron would not be moving into the White House after the Jan. 20 inauguration. Trump will be moving in immediately, but his wife and 10-year-old son will join him at the end of the school year.
The Trumps do not want to disrupt son Barron, who is in the middle of the fourth grade at a prestigious prep school, the Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School on the Upper West Side. Throughout the campaign, Barron has been kept out of the spotlight, except Trump announcing his candidacy, the Republican National convention and election night the public has not seen Barron. Melania also has not been that visible on the campaign trail, except the convention, a few interviews and the last days of the campaign where she gave a speech and joined her husband campaigning. The future first lady, 46, is the first foreign-born one in 200 years, and her few forays into the political life has been met with criticism.
A source told the New York Post, “Melania is extremely close to Barron, and they have become closer during the campaign. The campaign has been difficult for Barron, and she is really hoping to keep disruption to a minimum.” The future first lady repeatedly said during the few interviews she participated in throughout the campaign that she is a hands-on mother, does not have a nanny, and wants to keep her son shielded from the public as possible.
Unfortunately, with staying in New York at the Trump Tower, Melania will not be able to drive Barron around anymore to school and his activities. They will have Secret Service agents and the NYPD watching their residence, and the Secret Service will drive them around in an armored vehicle. The Secret Service has already descended at their Fifth Avenue home, with the area around closed to traffic.
Melania is committed to her duties as the first lady, and she will travel to Washington as needed. A source told the New York Post, “Melania is very supportive of her husband and is fully on board of doing everything that’s needed as first lady.” The press asked the President-elect on Sunday, Nov. 20, as he emerged from meetings at his Bedminster Golf Club in New Jersey about the living arrangements and if his wife and son will be moving into the White House, Trump responded, “very soon. Right after he finishes school.”
Afterward, Trump Transition spokesman Jason Miller commented, “The Trump family is energized and excited about their new role serving the country, and specifically the President-elect’s task at hand of helping to move our country forward. No official statement has been released by the Trump family regarding transition timing, but like any parents they are concerned about pulling their 10-year-old son out of school in the middle of the year. We would also appreciate the same privacy and security considerations given to previous First Families with regard to minor children be extended to the Trumps as well.”
Although it was common for first ladies in the nineteenth century to stay home or delay moving to the White House, no first lady in modern history did not initially move into the White House after the inauguration. Ryder University First Ladies’ scholar Myra Gutin told USA Today, Melania Trump “very well may be the first telecommuting first lady.”
Gutin sees Melania’s decision to stay away from a problem for her completing her duties as the first lady and for her husband’s fledgling administration. Although the first lady is an unpaid position with no constitutional role, she maintains almost as large staff in the East Wing as the president does in the West Wing. Gutin says, “The public is split on what it wants the first lady to be,” Gutin says. “Half prefer she just serve tea and be ceremonial. The other half says you have an incredible platform here, what are you going to do with it? If we’re not seeing her, if she’s hiding away, I can’t see it as helpful (to the Trump administration).”
While Melania Trump has the style of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy, her decision to stay away from the White House most resembles First Lady Bess Truman, the wife of President Harry Truman, who served as the 33rd president from 1945 to 1953. Truman spent as much time as possible away from the White House and Washington and in their native Missouri with the Trumans’ only daughter Margret. Truman spent most of her summers at her home in Missouri. Gutin explained the primary reason Truman spent time in Missouri; it was because “Mrs. Truman wanted Margaret to have a more down-to-earth upbringing.”
Like Melania, Bess was uncomfortable with the limelight of the presidency. Despite being more reticent of the limelight, Bess Truman was a successful first lady, who lobbied and oversaw the renovation of the White House as it was stripped to its bare walls. The success of Bess Truman proves that especially now in this technologically advanced age, Melania Trump can make it work as First Lady until the end of the school year in June, as long as she eventually moves into the White House.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. Ms Goodman is an expert in presidential campaigns and election history and she has been covering American elections as a journalist since 2004.