The historic 2016 presidential election keeps on producing first-ever landmarks, and that includes the next first lady of United States, Melania Trump.
So what kind of FLOTUS will she be? According to first-lady historians, here’s a hint: Think Jackie Kennedy, not Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama.
“In terms of the evolution of the first lady, I see (Trump) moving us back to the more traditional role,” says Jean Wahl Harris, who studies the role of the first lady at the University of Scranton. “A very traditional social hostess is something I think she will be comfortable with.”
But she will be expected to be front and center, not shy and retiring like Bess Truman in the 1940s. But Trump was hardly on the campaign trail so what’s to stop her from doing the unexpected as first lady?
“Starting with Kennedy, the expectations have ratcheted up, it’s not just about being a good wife and mother,” Harris says. “Americans expect (the first lady) to be a celebrity, to be seen, to support your husband, to have a project that’s good for the nation. And we expect to see you.”
She “will surely rise to the rather rigid strictures of a job whose very existence is something of an anachronism,” adds Elizabeth Mehren, professor of journalism and expert on first ladies at Boston University. “Mrs. Trump has signaled that her ’cause’ may be cyberbullying, a safe bet for the mother of a 10-year-old, but less safe for the wife of someone who sends mean tweets at 3 in the morning.”
What makes Melania Trump historic?
First foreign-born FLOTUS in 191 years: Born in Slovenia in Eastern Europe in 1970, Trump will be the first first lady not born in the USA since Louisa Adams, wife of President John Quincy Adams, who was born in England in 1775, when America was still an English colony, and took office in 1825.
First Wife No. 3: Past presidents have had multiple wives (Reagan, Ford, Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt among them), but no one else before President-elect Trump has been married and divorced twice before marrying a third time.
First former fashion model: Trump made her living as fashion model Melania Knauss before and after she came to the U.S., and met Trump at a fashion party. They married in 2005, and have one son, Barron.
First to have posed nude: She took it all off for photographers at least twice: The New York Post ran one set of images in July of Trump in her birthday suit in 1995 when she was 25. British GQ ran its own set of images, from 2000, in March, and again online on Tuesday, of Trump sprawled on a fur throw, wearing nothing but jeweled bracelets and a handcuff.
First for whom English is not her first language: Her native language is Slovenian but she also speaks four others: English, French, Serbian and German.
This fluency could come in handy, as it did for President Kennedy, whose wife spoke French and Spanish.
“I see her going back to a Jackie Kennedy model of first lady,” says Harris. “She’s not going to want to be in the public eye. Jackie Kennedy wanted to protect her children and herself. Melania will be like that, she won’t like talking in public.”
Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University, also sees her in the “mold” of Jackie Kennedy. “Somebody who has keen eye on fashion, who doesn’t interfere with policy-making in a public way. She will travel and be courted around Europe as someone who is glamorous. … There’s no advantage for her to get involved in politics in a visceral way.”
As a former fashion model, she can help boost the fortunes of the American fashion industry, the way Mrs. Obama did almost every time she appeared in public. Trump also will be expected to fill the “oldest job” of the first lady role, says Lisa Kathleen Graddy, curator at a first ladies exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
“The through-line between Martha Washington and Michelle Obama is the role of administration hostess, the public face of the administration,” Graddy says.
But since Trump himself was a mold-breaker, so might be Melania, says Mark Feldstein, a professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. “I think all bets are off as far as usual expectations, and that applies to the first lady as well as Trump himself.”
Melania can help soften Trump’s tempestuous image, Brinkley said. “She is going to be seen as the temperance figure, keeping his temper down to earth,” he said. “She’ll do fine, she’s not likely going to be a pioneering first lady. But being a mom is a big deal and raising her son is going to be all-consuming.”
And she probably can count on Americans to help her, even those who didn’t vote for Trump, says veteran Hollywood insider Howard Bragman, founder of Fifteen Minutes Public Relations.
“I think people are going to want to give her a chance,” he said. “She knows exactly who her husband is and what he is, she’ll be a good ear for him, a kinder, gentler one, I would hope. I think people will be more judgmental about him, and they will give her a chance.”