Noblesse Oblige?

U. S. Republicans are crowing that the Trump White House is paying some $5 million less in salaries than the Obama White House did, largely due to the fact that Melania Trump employs only five staffers compared to Michelle Obama, who kept 24 staff members busy.

However it’s no surprise to anyone that the first lady’s staff is smaller than her predecessor’s. Melania Trump delayed filling staff positions from the outset.

Furthermore she has declared no causes nor created any initiatives. She has faltered, and in a vacuum of activity by her, as months stretch along, stepdaughter Ivanka has stepped in by default, assuming Melania’s mantel of first lady, an unpaid advisor to the President, a position that is usually natural to a president’s wife.

Clearly it is fundamentally unfair to compare Melania Trump to Michelle Obama, despite that some similarities prevail. That is, Melania 47, and Michelle who was 45 at inauguration, are or were mothers of young kids when their husbands assumed office. Barron Trump is 11, Malia and Sasha, 9 and 6 when Obama was inaugurated.

Michelle Obama has degrees from Princeton University and Harvard Law. She used them to develop a career first in public and nonprofit service, then assumed incrementally more responsible and increasingly prominent university jobs.

A facile and engaging public speaker, Michelle presented a polished, aware, and sophisticated image, a winning asset to that campaign. Working as first lady she jumped into initiatives focused on girls’ education, children’s health, nutrition, and fitness, setting early ground consistent with the principles underlying the Affordable Care Act.

Melania has her own kind of polish. A college drop-out with insignificant higher education, she nevertheless found her way in life by perfecting beauty and working as a model.

But photos of herself in her scanties or less, while stock-in-trade for the successful model, are conventionally a liability for a first lady of the United States.

With the indelibility and world-wide accessibility of all things Internet, these photographs may characterize her variously for the long term.

Having the additional disadvantage of being the third wife of a notorious philanderer, unless she takes her image firmly in hand through actions that put her in a more balanced context, what’s to stop her being stereotyped either as an exploited victim of a predatory male (see the “free Melania” movement) or as a fortune-hunting gold-digging opportunistic home-wrecker?

A path could yet be found in this forest. Betty Ford, for example, used her position to highlight her own alcoholism and recovery to engage, draw attention to the struggles of and assist the addicted.

In that mode, Melania might have relevant insights to correct conditions that lure youth from education to strip and trip through the fashion world for the titillation of consumers.

But why compete with the ideals of the past, Jackie, Michelle, Mamie or Eleanor?

An iconoclast in her role of first lady, Melania per se challenges the norms of respectability.

Rather than disavow her early exposures, it would be refreshing might she have herself unrolled from a carpet au naturel before Congress and proceed to use her wiles to bend reps to her will.

By embracing and fortifying  the early choices that led her to take command of her life, disdaining the acceptable, cowardly restraints of mores that confine women in a fluid world, Melania could stand as an example. Might she create initiatives to assist girls and women in setting their own expectations; to find their own ways to crush wage gaps within the system; to define themselves according to their own lights?

Melania might choose any number of relevant causes to champion.

The point is, when Melania Trump adopts a cause she will need a staff. People to help her organize her facts, resources, and calendar, lobby legislators, write speeches and white papers; she will need assistance in the job.

Nowhere is it written that a first lady must take up any cause. Yet such a rare and powerful position comes with a duty: Noblesse oblige.

Curtailing her staff is not a laudable indicator of thrift as much as it perhaps reveals a lack of direction, or a dearth of commitment beyond the personal.

It will be interesting to see whether the first lady can retake the catwalk in full command of her standing and public life.

 

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