Seldom seen, rarely heard: Melania's tenure is most notable for her absence

Lucia Graves in Washington
Melania Trump may not be as popular as her predecessor Michelle Obama but she is far more popular than her husband. Photograph: Pool/Getty Images

The most notable thing about Melania Trump’s tenure as first lady so far has been her absence: it took her five months to relocate from New York to the White House, a spell unheard of for a modern first lady.

Seldom seen and even more seldom heard, the former model may not be as popular as her predecessor Michelle Obama, but she is far more popular than her husband. Unfortunately for his Republican administration, she seems to have little interest in using that popularity to do anything of substance with the post.

It is a bit unclear what can fairly be expected of a first lady in 2018, given that the role is ill-defined, involuntary and – remarkably, at a time when it has expanded to be a near full-time occupation resembling political surrogacy – unpaid.

What is clear is that Melania – who greeted her husband’s election win with “tears – and not of joy”, according to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury – is in good company in her antipathy for the position.

The role of first lady has evolved significantly since Martha Washington set the mold by regularly playing hostess to visiting dignitaries and members of Congress during George Washington’s presidency. But she also set a precedent by chafing at her duties, confiding to a niece she felt “more like a state prisoner than anything else”.

Even in the 19th century, when there were far fewer expectations for first ladies than at present, many, according to historian and first lady biographer Jean HBaker, “weren’t very keen on the idea that they’d come to the White House because they’d said, ‘I do,’ to their husbands”.

According to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, Melania greeted her husband’s election win with ‘tears - and not of joy’. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

Louisa Adams, the London-born wife to John Quincy Adams – and the only other foreign-born first lady besides Melania – reportedly spent her time in the White House depressed and binge-eating chocolates. More than a century later, Elizabeth Virginia “Bess” Truman, refused to give press conferences while in the White House because, as she put it: “I am not the one who is elected. I have nothing to say to the public.”

But by the television age, Bess had become something of an exception in bucking the growing duties of first ladies. By that time Eleanor Roosevelt had established a high water mark for what presidential wives were capable of.

Other first ladies, like Lady Bird Johnson with her solo whistlestop tour of 47 American towns, Jackie Kennedy with her iconic status, and Hillary Clinton with her outspoken push for healthcare reform, further reshaped the role. Since then, public appearances of spouses on the campaign trail and in the White House have only grown more central to presidential strategy, even where they were less overtly political.

In that sense Melania fits nicely in the tradition of America’s early first ladies, according to Baker, who wrote a book on Mary Todd Lincoln.

“We’re in a time in terms of all kinds of public policies where we’re regressing with regard to what we want as a progressive society,” she said. “And it seems to me that First Lady Trump reflects that.”

Melania’s public addresses have been rare and her statements so carefully curated she has been dubbed ‘the Instagram first lady.’ Photograph: Domenico Stinellis/AP

Today, the first lady’s perch can be among the most influential in the country, with higher rates of name recognition than vice-presidents, according to recent data from the White House Transition Project, a nonpartisan group that provides information to new White House staff.

Melania’s predecessor in the White House capitalized on this to no small effect, as Barack Obama reminded Americans in a newly released conversation with David Letterman on Friday.

“One of the things that Michelle figured out, in some ways faster than I did, was part of your ability to lead the country doesn’t have to do with legislation, doesn’t have to do with regulations, it has to do with shaping attitudes, shaping culture, increasing awareness,” the former president said.

By the end of her husband’s administration, Michelle was among the most popular political figures in the country. Her speech at the Democratic National Convention was tweeted more than those of the presidential candidates themselves.

By contrast, what might have been an impressive political debut for Melania at the Republican National Convention was tarnished by the revelation that parts of her speech appeared to have been lifted from an address given by Michelle in 2008. Her public addresses have been rare ever since and her statements so carefully curated she has been dubbed “the Instagram first lady”.

Where Melania has spoken up, it has often been ill-advised. Take, for instance, her public spat with Trump’s first wife, Ivana, over who the real first lady is – or her much-criticized campaign to end cyberbullying, a mission which (given her husband’s reputation as “the world’s most powerful troll”) was widely perceived to be tone-deaf.

A recent tweet marking Martin Luther King Day on Monday in which she said “I am honored to be First Lady of a nation that continually strives for equality & justice for all” was similarly criticized for the sense that it sought to obscure the truth about Trump and the record of his administration.

Yet she shouldn’t be made to answer for her husband’s missteps, according to Lauren A Wright, author of On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today. Nor should we, Wright said, ignore the ways in which she has meaningfully bucked recent convention.

Melania’s recent staffing announcements may indicate a move to become more active in the role. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Unlike other recent first ladies who took leave of salaried jobs to take up the demands of one they did not choose and were not compensated for, Melania has not been in a hurry to please anyone.

“In some ways she’s eschewing the pressure of these first ladies to be these promoters of their husbands,” said Wright, adding: “Looked at this way, Melania is as much a modern first lady as recent first ladies that we’ve seen – it’s just very different.”

Recent staffing announcements – Melania has hired directors of policy and operations along with a communications aide to her East Wing press team – may well indicate a move to become more active in the role, although the idea that she might publicly disagree with her husband on policy is surely fantasy.

Indeed the chief takeaway from a year’s misplaced liberal hope in Trump’s daughter Ivanka would seem to be that though she proved a powerful tool in currying public favor for him, Trump’s political conversations only go one way: his.