Why Melania Trump is proof that politics is always a game of other halves
The First Lady-in-waiting stirred controversy by declining to join her husband at the White House for six months. Spouses now have a crucial role to play in politics... but not all want to take part. Ed Power reports
There was a rare moment of drama in Donald Trump's march on the White House this week as it was announced First Lady-in-waiting Melania Trump is to break with convention by remaining in New York for at least the first six months of her husband's presidency. As with other aspects of Trump's assault on American political norms, the news has threatened to burn the internet to the ground.
Some of the critics of the mogul-turned-politician describe Melania's bombshell as insulting to the office of Commander-in-Chief. That's despite the fact that the delay is to allow the couple's 10-year-old son, Barron, to complete his school year in Manhattan. No matter, say anti-Trump campaigners. A First Lady's duty is to be at her husband's side - which means relocating at the first opportunity to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Adding to the controversy is the fact that Melania's continued presence bang in the middle of America's largest city is at the expense of the taxpayer. The hefty Secret Service detail at Trump Tower - now a scene of regular protests - is at a cost of $1m per day, according to CNN. Melania isn't simply flouting protocol. She is contributing to the wilful waste of public finances against which her husband has railed.
The furore speaks to the immense scrutiny directed at the First Lady - an unofficial position without an equivalent in other democracies. It is no exaggeration to say that First Ladies often loom as prominently as their husbands.
Michelle Obama, one of the most popular occupants of the Executive Residence, enjoys higher approval ratings than Barack. Nancy Reagan was, for her part, perceived as a cautionary voice in her husband's administration (until it was reported she encouraged Ronald to consult astrologers before big decisions). When she passed away in March, former President George W Bush attended the funeral along with four present and former First Ladies.
And what of the least-admired recent First Lady, Hillary Clinton? Her reputation as gimlet-eyed triangulator was set in marble when Bill claimed the Oval Office - and would haunt her as she herself sought the biggest job in politics.
First Lady is a role that defines you for life - for good or ill. On this side of the Atlantic, the extraordinary deference shown to presidential spouses has long baffled. There is simply no analogous post.
In this part of the world, we also expect political spouses to smile for the cameras and then get out of the picture. Contrast the warmth towards seen-but-never-heard Samantha Cameron - a daughter of wealth whose most impressive achievement was to manage a luxury goods brand - with the vitriol directed at Cherie Blair, guilty of the unforgivable crime of holding passionately held opinions she was not afraid to voice.
"Cherie was determined to show that she can be her own woman, pursue her own career, maintain her own political views and do the wife and mother bit as well - everything women are told to aspire to," wrote Guardian leader writer Anne Perkins. "Yet she's the one regarded as a failure."
In view of the fuss over Melania Trump's slow procession to the White House, one, moreover, shudders to imagine what Americans would make of Joachim Sauer, a professor of theoretical chemistry and, it also happens, husband of the world's most powerful woman, German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Sauer has become an object of cult fascination in Germany because of his determination to duck the spotlight (one newspaper said he was "as invisible as a molecule").
He infamously declined to attend his wife's 2005 inauguration, instead watching "some" of the event on television at his university. Later he would earn ridicule for flying by budget airline to Italy rather than pay a modest fee in order to accompany his wife on the government jet. "Each of us goes about their job," Merkel said to Bunte, the German celebrity magazine. "I'm not a housewife and he's not a househusband."
The closest the inscrutable Sauer has come to commandeering the headlines on his own was when he complained to city officials in Berlin about a public performance near the couple's apartment, which registered eight decibels above permitted levels.
"We had an expectation that if we kept at it, he would, sooner or later give an interview," political columnist Hugo Muller-Vogg of mass-circulation German daily Bild told reporters. "But he stuck to his principles throughout, and there's something about that you have to admire."
In the United States maintaining so low a profile would be regarded as un-American. Lady Bird Johnson, wife of Lyndon B, travelled the American South promoting the 1964 Civil Rights Act and, following her husband's death, became an advocate for nature conservation.
Just as active was Betty Ford, who spoke out on social issues and candidly discussed her struggle with alcoholism. In 1982, five years after Gerald Ford's ousting from the White House, she established the Betty Ford Centre, a rehabilitation facility for addicts.
Yet it is telling that not all have embraced the role. Hillary Clinton was deeply sceptical about being First Lady and generated controversy by suggesting a successful career woman should have ambitions beyond dinner parties or pet projects. "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfil my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life," she said. Her reward was a flood of letters, including one which accused her of "insulting" American motherhood and another labelling her the Anti-Christ.
Nor was Michelle Obama initially gung-ho about joining her husband in Washington. With two daughters at school, she gave serious consideration to remaining at the family home in Chicago. However, this was deemed a breach of protocol and so she moved to the White House in time for her husband's inauguration.
With so much else that is unconventional about Trump as a politician, it seems unlikely that Melania's reluctance to uproot to the White House will have negative impact. That's assuming she does in the end up sticks.
If she continues to drag her heels and stay in New York, it will be come to be perceived as a grievous slight against the institution of the president.
"It strikes me that Melania is a creature of habit, and the upheaval of moving to Washington was too much at this time, but the enormous privilege of living in the White House would be hard to overlook for too long," Kate Anderson Brower, author of First Women: The Grace and the Power of America's Modern First Ladies told the Washington Post.
"The protocol is you just do it. You just make it work."