Family

Melania’s “Be Best” Campaign Sure Sounds Like a Direct Rebuke to Her Husband

A "Be Best" poster is seen behind Melania Trump’s head.
First lady Melania Trump speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House on Monday to outline her Be Best program.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

At a brief ceremony in the Rose Garden on Tuesday afternoon, Melania Trump announced that her much-anticipated public agenda as first lady will focus on children’s issues. The campaign has three pillars: well-being, social media, and opioid abuse. It is titled “Be Best.”

“As a mother and as first lady, it concerns me that in today’s fast-paced and ever-connected world, children can be less prepared to express or manage their emotions and oftentimes turn to forms of destructive or addictive behavior,” she said in what was both an anodyne prepared statement and a devastating burn on her husband, who was seated in the audience. She described “Be Best” as an “awareness campaign” that will draw attention to existing programs and initiatives, and “educate children about the many issues they are facing today.”

If the three pillars of “Be Best” were actual pillars, it would be time to call the building inspector. Well-being, social media, and opioid abuse are not parallel concepts. “Well-being” is so vague it could easily describe the other two, which are in turn so different from each other they could only be connected by a rickety umbrella like “wellness.” The hodgepodge agenda was reminiscent of the Veep gag about ex-president Selina Meyer’s Fund for Adult Literacy, AIDS, the Advancement of Global Democracy, Military Family Assistance, and Childhood Obesity.

To be fair, the first lady has indeed spent time working on all these issues since assuming her role. She has made several appearances at clinics that serve children born to opioid-addicted mothers. And she identified cyberbullying as a personal priority in the final days of her husband’s campaign in 2016. Though her interest in the topic seemed to languish after the election, she held a “cyberbullying roundtable” with tech executives in March, indicating she was still working on the issue in some capacity.

When I asked the first lady’s communications director, Stephanie Grisham, about the status of the cyberbullying campaign in March, she pushed back. “We really want people to stay away from saying it’s a cyberbullying campaign,” she said. Grisham told NPR before today’s announcement that Melania’s initiative would focus on the “many issues” facing children in America.

Author Kate Brower observed in the New York Times earlier this year that Melania’s refusal to accede to the traditions of her role has made her a kind of accidental radical. She delayed her move to the White House until five months after the inauguration. She canceled her plans to accompany her husband to the World Economic Forum in the wake of the Stormy Daniels allegations. She appeared to swat away his hand as they walked together in public. Her body language has consistently projected loathing for her husband and her duties as first lady.

Monday’s announcement is a kind of acquiescence to the expectations of the role. First ladies have long chosen pet projects to focus their public efforts, from reading to childhood nutrition to temperance. Often these efforts are plausibly “nonpolitical,” yet serve as a complement to the president’s agenda. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign echoed her husband’s war on drugs, for example.

“Be Best,” by contrast, can be read as a rebuke to the president. Where he is embroiled in a scandal involving accusations that he cheated on her with a porn star after the birth of their son, she chooses to talk about “the most valuable and fragile among us.” Where he tweets insults to his enemies, she preaches on the importance of teaching children to use “their words wisely and speak with respect and compassion.” The only Trumpian aspects of the program are the bombastic flourish of the title, and the fact that it doesn’t make any sense.