Time To Retire The Office Of First Lady?

If American meritocracy and egalitarianism is to mean anything (and admittedly it often doesn’t mean much at all, especially considering the key protagonists in the presidential election we have just witnessed) then is it finally time to abolish the familiar but not-strictly-necessary official role for the spouse of the president?

Jack Shafer makes an undeniably persuasive argument in Politico for abolishing official roles or any expectation of service for first ladies (or future first gentlemen) altogether:

Melania Trump has done the nation a great service by deciding to maintain Trump Tower as her full-time residence and not to move to the White House any time soon. But her resistance shouldn’t stop there. Now is as good a time as any to eliminate the ceremonial office of the “first lady,” that abhorrent honorific we apply to the president’s wife, and encourage the first spouse to live like an ordinary citizen. All we need is for Melania to agree.

Yes, defund the ridiculously large staff that currently earns upward of $1.5 million a year serving Michelle Obama; abolish the federally funded bully pulpit from which the presidential spouses have historically advocated for healthy eating, literacy, child welfare, anti-drug programs, mental health issues and beautification of highways. The president’s spouse isn’t a specimen of American royalty. By giving her a federal budget and nonstop press coverage, we endorse a pernicious kind of neo-nepotism that says, pay special attention to the person not because she’s earned it or is inherently worthy of our notice but because of who she’s related to by marriage.

The hairstyles, fashion choices, vacation destinations and pet projects of the president’s spouse are newsworthy only to the mentally vacant. Other democracies, such as the United Kingdom, bestow no such honors upon the spouses of their leaders and are better for it. To use an au courant phrase, the office of the first spouse is a swamp in need of draining. Won’t somebody please dispatch a dredger to the East Wing?

The comparison made by Shafer between the modern conception of the role of First Spouse and the often more significant work carried out by other first ladies in history, particularly Eleanor Roosevelt, is quite stark:

Some contemporary presidential spouses have led active, involved political lives, providing more than a sounding board [..] Eleanor Roosevelt published books, magazine articles and newspapers advocating positions that routinely outwinged her husband, especially on civil rights. She testified before Congress. She had a regular radio program. She gave regular news conferences. She toured the country in support of migrant workers.

[..] But does any of this work require a staff of 15 or more? The spouses of senators and corporate chiefs provide advice and speechwriting help for their husbands and we don’t give them a budget or lavish them with attention. What’s so special about the first spouse that we should give them $1.5 million in mad money to serve as hostess and confidante, White House remodeling consultant, supervisor of china?

Even when it comes to the serious political work, Roosevelt did what she did with a staff of two and probably could have done without. If the first spouses’ causes are so admirable, the president should propose them and get the government to fund them via official channels instead of building a publicity machine for his spouse to advance them.

It is a compelling argument, one which sets the “conserv” and “-atarian” sides of my brain rather at war with one another. On one hand, if one were building the American democracy from scratch, it is hard to imagine that we would create role as wasteful and often patronising as that of the Office of the First Lady.

As Shafer rightly points out in his piece, most other advanced democracies do not feel the need to put the head of state or head of government’s spouse on a pedestal. While Britain, with our monarchy, may be in no position to give lectures on this particular subject, it is notable that there has never really been great public or institutional demand for the spouse of the prime minister to become some kind of supplementary Mother to the Nation.

And while the traditional, dismal obsession with what prime ministerial spouses choose to wear has not yet died away, the fact that Britain now has her second woman prime minister (and male consort) in 10 Downing Street will hopefully start to undermine the traditional obsession with the shoes and dresses worn by female politicians.

In fact, a deadpan article describing Philip May’s sartorial choices in the same breathless manner that the media cover women in politics shows – as well as making an excellent point about hypocrisy and sexism – just how foolish the idea of expecting somebody connected to an elected leader by accident of marriage should also be expected to play a leading role in the life of the nation.

From the Metro:

Stepping into the limelight as First Man, Philip May showcased a sexy navy suit with a flourish of pinstripe.

A single fastened button at the waist helped show off his fantastic figure and a pale blue tie brought out the colour of his eyes.

Round glasses perched on his nose accentuated his amazing bone structure – no doubt one of the assets he used to help him to bag his wife.

The man behind the UK’s most powerful woman looked on fondly as she addressed the UK for the first time as leader.

Oh, and let’s not forget those shoes…

Philip elongated his pins with a pair of black brogues as he accompanied his wife to step over the threshold of their new home – 10 Downing Street.

In this context and these modern times, expecting First Ladies to take on a feel-good, universally popular softball social cause while tarting up the White House at taxpayer expense seems like the anachronism that it is. Yet there is some merit to the tradition, too. And numerous First Ladies have gone on to leave a lasting positive mark on America which otherwise may have been missed. One thinks of Jacqueline Kennedy’s style, Lady Bird Johnson‘s focus on national beautification or Betty Ford and her work for breast cancer awareness, substance abuse treatment and the arts.

If Melania Trump doesn’t want to come to Washington D.C. right away, so be it. As the National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson notes, reminding Washingtonians that they are not the centre of the universe is not necessarily a bad thing.

But I imagine that the institutional gravity of the White House will eventually pull Melania into some kind of role, which may be no bad thing. Melania Trump becomes a first-generation immigrant First Lady at a time when many people (rightly or wrongly) are concerned about the impact of a Trump presidency on immigration. With a bit of imagination, that fact could be used to quite a positive, calming effect.



Bottom Image: Marc Nozell, Wikimedia Commons

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