Editor’s Note: Kate Andersen Brower is a CNN contributor and the author of the forthcoming book “First in Line: Presidents, Vice Presidents and the Pursuit of Power.” She has written two other books about the White House, “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies” and “The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House.” Unless otherwise noted, facts in this piece reflect research from those works. The opinions expressed here are hers.
Melania Trump has been at the center of planning the administration’s first state dinner in honor of French President Emmanuel Macron and French first lady Brigitte Macron. These dinners are always more than they seem. They are not just about schmoozing – they are often about serious matters of policy and in this case, that means the focus will be the fate of the Iran nuclear deal, which President Donald Trump described Tuesday as “ridiculous” and “insane” and which President Macron is still looking to salvage.
But it is Melania Trump who has been seizing the “optics” as the dinner approaches. There was her pose for the now-viral photo of herself with the Clintons, Obamas and Bushes at Barbara Bush’s funeral service over the weekend, in which she seemed entirely at ease.
Earlier, her smile and warm exchange with President Obama at the funeral set Twitter on fire, and two days later the first lady was sending “healing thoughts of strength” to former President George H.W. Bush, who was hospitalized Monday – even as her husband was tweeting about building the wall on the US-Mexico border and railing against “obstructionists” in Congress.
There was the statement-making white hat at the state arrival ceremony Tuesday, the pastoral photo of her with the Macrons as her husband planted an oak tree, a gift from their visitors. And the pictures posted on social media of her careful preparation for her turn as hostess to heads of state.
Melania Trump comes to this fateful moment in her husband’s administration with a relatively low bar of expectations to clear. In her first year as first lady, many have observed her as remote, disengaged or powerless – given her attempt to address bullying while married to someone whose milieu is made from online bluster and intimidation. Even so, in the eyes of many spectators, Melania Trump has come into her own as first lady as the Macrons’ state visit has unfolded. All eyes are upon her.
Against this backdrop, the Trumps and Macrons and the powerful of DC will all sit down to dinner for a three-course meal that features rack of lamb and jambalaya. The first lady and her social secretary plan the details of these dinners, which can be nerve-wracking affairs. If there is a true proving ground for first ladies, Melania Trump may be on it.
Both first ladies and their staffs have spoken about the anxiety a state dinner can produce. “If you are invited to a state dinner, you are only supposed to reject that honor for four reasons: a death in the family, a serious illness, a wedding, or an unavoidable absence from Washington,” said Bill Clinton’s chief of protocol Mary Mel French.
Laura Bush recalled, “I was not nervous before my own wedding – there were no jitters or cold palms then – but I was anxious now.” The Obamas’ social secretary, Jeremy Bernard, told a group of embassy staff, “You know the feeling – the fear of displaying a flag upside down, playing the wrong national anthem… the weather, especially here in D.C.”
But Melania Trump hasn’t seemed the least unnerved by the process. She’s turning heads with her stylish, cool comportment, and has been overseeing preparations – reportedly without relying on a planner – with a menu that uses ingredients from Michelle Obama’s kitchen garden and gold-themed table settings that use pieces from George W. Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s China service. She seems to have delighted in the process. Perhaps it’s been a welcome distraction from more salacious or foreboding news. This may be the first lady finding her footing or it might just be a welcome refuge from the daily headlines.
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The East Wing of the White House comes under the first lady’s purview and always operates differently from the president’s West Wing. They are not physically far apart, but when it comes to how power works, they might as well be on opposite sides of town. In the Trump White House, the distinction between them is more stark than ever.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Michelle Obama famously said, “When they go low, we go high.” It seems Melania Trump is trying to epitomize that in the White House, even though it’s a difficult credo to live by. Tuesday night she will try and bring some of the glamor and tradition of the past back. It will be a welcome sight.