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Just what is it that Americans expect of their first ladies?

There is no law, no formal job description that dictates the spouse of the president must do any work of any kind. Presidents are paid salaries, but their spouses are not.

Mrs. Trump should seriously consider words spoken by former first lady Pat Nixon: “Being first lady is the hardest unpaid job in the world.”
REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Lots of people were puzzled and/or amused recently by a video showing President Donald Trump shaking the hand of First Lady Melania Trump after she introduced him to a gathering. Just about as many people were puzzled and/or amused when the president, post-handshake, told his wife to sit down and pointed her to her seat, much as a high school principal might do to a nervous student who just received a good conduct medal.

Mary Stanik

The thing is, whether you like or respect the Trumps or not, whether you think the manner in which they often act with each other in public (including their seeming unwillingness to hold hands at times deemed appropriate for first couple clasping) to be unusual and even strange, the way they conduct their albeit less than ordinary marriage (e.g., their 24-year age gap, the president’s history of marital infidelity) is none of our concern. As long as no laws are broken. Because what they do or don’t do regarding public displays of affection is up to them.

However, if we are going to pay attention to something besides natural disasters, and if we must focus on the president’s wife, at least some of us might, might, want to consider the first lady’s workload and not her marriage, especially as that workload relates to the costs incurred for her staff. Mrs. Trump delivered an anti-cyberbullying speech at the United Nations, but she has been far less publicly involved with that issue or any other project than her modern-day predecessors were after the same amount of time in the White House. Of course, many Americans are deeply concerned about expenses incurred by the president and some of his Cabinet. That issue will have to wait for another column.

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While we consider any work done or not done by Mrs. Trump and her taxpayer-funded staff that, to be fair, does appear at present to be smaller than that of previous first ladies, we also must remember that the whole issue of the Office of the First Lady, of any first lady, is a tremendously thorny rose garden to maneuver. Currently, there is no law, no formal job description that dictates the spouse of the president must do any work of any kind. Presidents are paid salaries, but their spouses are not. It’s true that first ladies have overseen White House social functions since the time of Martha Washington, and presidential wives (and some daughters and sisters) have embraced these hostess tasks with widely varying levels of enthusiasm and accomplishment. And since the days of the workaholic, peripatetic near-president Eleanor Roosevelt (who, as it were, had much less than a traditional marital relationship with her husband following her 1918 discovery of Franklin Roosevelt’s infidelity), first ladies have been expected to espouse public “projects” in addition to planning state dinners and Easter egg rolls. Some have done more than others, some have done better than others, but most of Mrs. Roosevelt’s more successful successors have publicly, and usually fervently, embraced at least one major project, assisted by anywhere from about 22 to 26 staff members (the count for Laura Bush and Michelle Obama). Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Ford each had about 30 employees in their pre-computer era offices and Jacqueline Kennedy had about 40.

What is interesting to examine in light of the Trump handshake furor and questions regarding Melania Trump’s workload is the idea that a presidential marriage’s condition doesn’t always determine how well a first lady’s work may be judged. Jacqueline Kennedy restored the White House to its intended integrity and elegance while managing a marriage fraught with her husband’s infidelity. Nancy Reagan had one of the tightest, most publicly affectionate presidential marriages ever, but abundant Reagan handholding didn’t seem to make enough people want to “just say no” to drugs.

And so, until this country decides what it really wants and expects from a presidential spouse, a spouse entitled to many of the same wondrous travel, housing, security (and staff) perks bestowed upon presidents, Mrs. Trump and any others (men included) who want to assume that role should seriously consider words spoken by former first lady Pat Nixon: “Being first lady is the hardest unpaid job in the world.”

For good measure, they also may want to heed some from almost first lady Ann Romney, though they are words that might have been spoken by most of the past first ladies: “The greatest advantage of being first lady is the opportunity it presents to truly make a difference on issues of great importance.”

After all, work done well by a first lady (or man) just might be worth more than a handshake.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, formerly lived in St. Paul. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.” 


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