In the very earliest moments of her keynote address, the First Lady talked emotionally about the vast human toll of the pandemic. “Since March our lives have changed drastically,” she said. “My deepest sympathy goes out to everyone who has lost a loved one.” She said that she prays for those who are sick, and that she wants them to know that they “are not alone.” Melania also said that she and her husband are inspired by people who wake up every day with the goal of providing for their families. “You are the backbone of this country.”
“I have been moved by the way Americans have come together in such an unfamiliar and often frightening situation,” she said to a small audience sitting in the recently redone Rose Garden as her husband looked on. She reportedly did not run her speech by the West Wing, and was very involved in writing it. Perhaps she wanted more oversight than she had four years ago when, at the RNC in 2016, parts of her speech were strikingly similar to the remarks Michelle Obama delivered at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
Melania also called for unity, which we have not heard from other speakers at the RNC. Her chief of staff and spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, said that “every word” in the speech was from Melania, and it was going to come “from the heart.” If true, that would demonstrate that the First Lady is able to do something her husband cannot: show that the administration feels the pain of people suffering during the pandemic and in the face of racial injustice.
At times, though, it seemed more like a farewell tour highlighting her work as First Lady, rather than a sincere pitch to keep her husband in the White House.
In the end, she talked more about her personal story than her husband’s presidency. She has been the most private First Lady in modern history, and on Tuesday we got to know her better than we have in over three-and-a-half years. She mentioned, for example, that as she grew up in Slovenia her goal was to move to the United States.
Toward the end of her remarks, she touched on calls for racial justice and took on a lecturing tone when she asked Americans “to stop the violence and looting being done in the name of justice” and “take a moment” to look at things from all perspectives. Then she called on the media to focus on addiction, a central part of her Be Best campaign. “If you are struggling with addiction, there is no shame in your illness,” she said. “Please seek help, you are worth it.”
Melania served an important role this week. She was able to show compassion and empathy, which her husband struggles to do. We did not hear any personal stories about Donald Trump as a father from his daughter Tiffany, who delivered a fiery partisan speech. His son Eric got close to showing his father’s humanity when he ended his remarks by saying that his father’s brother, Robert, who died a little more than a week ago, would be proud of him, and then, addressing his father, said “I love you very much.” But that was the extent of it. So far, Melania is the only member of the Trump family who has spoken convincingly about her husband’s character.
“No matter the amount of negative or false media headlines or attacks from the other side, Donald Trump has not, and will not, lose focus on you,” she said.
Let’s look at the two most recent examples of first ladies speaking during party conventions on behalf of their husband’s reelection. Laura Bush talked about watching her husband, President George W. Bush, grapple with national security in a post-9/11 world. “I remember sitting in the window of the White House, watching as my husband walked on the lawn below. I knew he was wrestling with these agonizing decisions that would have such a profound consequence for so many lives and for the future of our world.”
At the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama drove home what she called her husband’s never-changing good character. “He’s the same man who, when our girls were first born, would anxiously check their cribs every few minutes to ensure that they were still breathing, proudly showing them off to everyone we knew. … That’s the man I see in those quiet moments late at night, hunched over his desk, poring over the letters people have sent him.”
First ladies may have an anachronistic role, but it’s one that carries enormous power, chief of which is influencing and humanizing their husbands. This President, with a noticeable lack of empathy for coronavirus victims, needed that more than most — I think Melania delivered as well as anyone could have.
In a recently released conversation secretly recorded by Mary Trump, the President’s niece, his own sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, trashed his character. “All he wants to do is appeal to his base,” she said. “He has no principles. None. None. And his base, I mean my God, if you were a religious person, you want to help people. Not do this.”
Sixteen years ago, Laura Bush said of her husband, “You can count on him, especially in a crisis. His friends don’t change — and neither do his values.” Melania had her own version of this message, though it sounded more like an excuse than words of praise: “We all know Donald Trump makes no secrets about how he feels about things. … Whether you like it or not, you always know what he’s thinking.”