When Jacqueline Kennedy was First Lady, she seldom spoke in public. And when she did, it was in a breathy whisper, more evocative of a young girl than a mature woman.
But to her husband, John Kennedy, she was an enormous political asset nonethless. She never failed to look picture perfect, her singularly lovely face set off by elegant, expensive clothes that graced her slender body. More to the point though, she was obviously not a lightweight. Though during her brief tenure in the White House, she was still young, in her early to mid-30s, she managed to make a mark.
First, her remarkable, atypical beauty made her a style icon. While this might now seem a frivolous credential, in the early 1960s it was not. Even by Inauguration Day, Mrs. Kennedy’s dresses, suits, coats, gloves, shoes, purses, and hats were admired and copied not only in America but in much of the rest of the world as well – including in what then was the Soviet bloc. The First Lady’s grace and beauty were so strong an attraction they were a magnet – a magnet as political asset.
Second, Jacqueline Kennedy brought taste and class to the presidential mansion. Not only did she function in the long tradition of First Ladies who had the imagination and determination to use the White House to their husband’s political benefit, she updated and upgraded every social occasion of any consequence. What gave White House entertainments during the Kennedy years their special éclat, their class, was, perhaps more than anything else, the guest list. It was studded with great names, particularly from the worlds of art, music, and literature. Carl Sandburg was there, as was Igor Stravinsky, as was Aaron Copeland and Leonard Bernstein and Robert Frost and Andrew Wyeth -and so on. Seldom in American history was the White House as stunning a repository of the best and brightest, the most gifted and talented.
Third, Jacqueline Kennedy took it on herself to refurbish, to restore, the White House. This though was no ordinary home improvement. Not by a long shot. Mrs. Kennedy approached the task with the utmost seriousness of purpose, firm in her resolve to make the White House worthy of the name, the president’s residence. Congress was persuaded to designate the executive mansion a national museum. Personal campaigns were undertaken to secure treasured gifts of furniture and art to enhance and even ennoble the cause. And various commissions were formed such as, for example, the White House Historical Association, to assure the presidential mansion would be worthy of its fabled history. “Every gallery and museum in the country,” it was said, “was laying its treasures at Jackie’s feet for her to pick and choose.”* And when her work was well along, she did something that at the time was extraordinary. She took to television to serve as guide for an extended tour of the White House. The show was a personal triumph – the White House had been transformed, by her, into a museum worthy of America’s heritage.
Since Jacqueline Kennedy has been rather a long list of First Ladies, most of whom were in one or another way a national asset. Some greater, some lesser, but nearly all left an imprint that was to the benefit of the American people. Until now. Until Melania Trump.
I described Mrs. Kennedy’s tenure as First Lady in brief detail because in some ways Mrs. Trump is more like her than any other relatively recent predecessor. She looks great and says little. But, so far at least, the resemblance ends there. So far at least, Melania Trump has been all appearance, no substance. So far at least, her contribution to the conversation has been zero, zilch, nada. So far at least, her husband has so completely sucked the air out of the room that she has gone missing.
*Barbara Kellerman, All the President’s Kin, Free Press, 1980.