Hammonton, N.J., and Novo Mesto, Slovenia are 4,334 miles apart in distance and light-years apart in culture. The new First Lady of the United States, Jill Jacobs Biden, and the current first lady, Melania Knavs (Knauss) Trump, are as different as the places of their birth.
They are also 19 years apart in age, 69 and 50, respectively. That gives Jill Biden a distinct edge in maturity and in life experience and in accomplishments, but fundamentally, these two women are different in many other ways that are critical to our expectations of a first lady.
What are those expectations? Well, we expect a certain graciousness, poise, eloquence, a sense of patriotism, duty to country, support of the president. We expect her to be a good mother and a good role model. Beyond that, there are secondary expectations that may or may not seem superficial, such as a sense of personal style and the ability to champion a cause to benefit the American people.
The whole country watches and weighs the first lady’s every move, every nuance, every word. Indeed, the whole world watches, too, as she serves as an unofficial ambassador for this country.
To live up to those expectations and to endure that level of scrutiny takes some preparation, life experience, and profound fortitude.
Jill Biden earned her bachelor of arts degree in English from the University of Delaware in 1975 while Melania Trump was only 5. She later earned a master’s degree in education in 1981, and a PhD in education in 2007.
Melania Trump studied architecture and design at the University of Ljubljana and dropped out after one year. Perhaps she didn’t see the value in continuing with university studies, having been a model since she was 5. Her mother was a pattern maker for a children’s wear manufacturer, and Melania was engaged to model some of the factory’s products. She started modeling commercially at 16, and signed with an agency in Milan, Italy at 18.
In 1996 — the same year she moved to Manhattan — Melania also modeled for an Italian men’s magazine, Max, in a nude photo shoot depicting “girl on girl” poses with another model. In 2000, she also posed nude—except for some diamonds — on the cover of the UK version of GQ magazine.
In trying to explain these photos later, her husband said nude shots are common and fashionable in Europe. Sure. We have Playboy magazine in the United States. Americans are not total prudes, but maybe we have every right to expect to hold first ladies to a higher standard.
In 2000, Melania applied for permanent residence under the EB-1 program, otherwise known as the “genius visa.” The program was designed to fast-track citizenship for “priority workers” and those with “extraordinary abilities,” such as scientists, researchers and professors. For that reason, it is also often called the “Einstein visa.”
According to The Washington Post, her most significant accomplishments at that stage of her career did not include research or scientific publications. No, her most notable credits included appearing on a cigarette ad on a billboard in Times Square, runway shows in Europe, and a spot in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition wherein she was wearing a string bikini and hugging a 6-foot inflatable whale. The last gig must have been great practice for her greatest achievement in 2005 — snagging and marrying Donald Trump, 24 years her senior.
Melania was still toddling around in diapers when her future husband was already counter-suing the U.S. government for $100 million over charges that Trump properties had practiced racial discrimination. Melania was barely 10 when her future husband had already amassed $4 billion in debt from 70 banks.
In contrast, the only smudge visible on Jill Biden’s record is that she was married and divorced before meeting Joe Biden, and that she maintained her share of a popular college bar in Delaware that she and her first husband had opened together. Scandalous, right?
But what about public service? Jill Biden served as president of the Biden Breast Health Initiative, a nonprofit that provides breast health education to teenage girls in Delaware. She’s the founder of Book Buddies, an organization that distributes books to low-income children.
She’s also active in Delaware Boots on the Ground, an organization that supports military families. It’s a cause that’s personal to her because of the service of her late stepson, Beau Biden, who served in Iraq. In 2011, as second lady, she joined first lady Michelle Obama in the creation of a national initiative, Joining Forces, to help support military families on a national scale.
Because of her teaching background at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) — which she continued even as she served as second lady — Jill Biden was appointed by President Barack Obama to lead an initiative to raise awareness of the value of community colleges.
One cannot completely discount the effort of Melania Trump to advocate for positive change. In 2018 — her second year as first lady — she launched the BE BEST campaign to advocate against youth drug use and cyber-bullying. That’s all well and good, but despite claims that she had written the pamphlet for the program in conjunction with the Federal Trade Commission, the truth is most of the text was lifted directly from a brochure the FTC had issued in 2014, during the Obama administration.
It wasn’t the first time accusations of plagiarism had been lobbed at Melania Trump. In 2016, during the Republican National Convention, her speech echoed an entire paragraph eerily similar to part of Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention of 2008. And in 2018, as she gave a speech to promote “BE BEST,” she borrowed wording from a speech Michelle Obama had given in 2016.
Media scrutiny of the “BE BEST” program notes that it failed to meet its stated goals by its second anniversary. In other words, it’s a failure and a non-starter.
So what has Melania accomplished in her role as first lady? She went down to Texas to “see for herself” what all the ballyhoo was about with refugee children separated from their parents and being detained in less-than-ideal conditions. Boarding the plane, the fashion-conscious Melania was photographed wearing an off-the-rack jacket with the words, “I really don’t care, do you?” boldly printed on the back.
Later, in tapes secretly recorded by her former assistant, Stephanie Wolkoff, Melania explained why she hadn’t done more to intervene on behalf of the children. She said the children — many brought to the U.S. by coyotes, were “taken care of nicely there” with warm beds and cabinets for their clothes. She remarked it was sad that they had to be separated from their parents, but she hadn’t become more involved because she was busy with White House Christmas decorations.
“I am working my ass off at Christmas stuff that, you know, who gives a fuck about Christmas stuff and decoration, but I need to do it right,” she said on tape.
Yes, first ladies are expected to find a cause and “do it right.” Laura Bush, also a former teacher, took on literacy as her mandate. Lady Bird Johnson had a capital beautification project. Nancy Reagan initiated the “Just Say No” program to fight drug abuse. Michelle Obama created a vegetable garden as a tool to teach children to eat healthier foods.
Jackie Kennedy restored the interior of the White House and redesigned the Rose Garden that had been established in 1913 by Ellen Wilson, wife of Woodrow Wilson. In 2020, Melania Trump dug out all the roses, leaving the historic garden sparse and bare — perhaps symbolic of her own despair at being otherwise ineffectual in her role.
There’s nothing written in stone about the expectations of a first lady, but it is generally acknowledged she is a very visible extension of the presidency itself — a living embodiment of the values and ideals held by her life partner. It’s a sometimes thankless job that takes grace and skill and diplomacy.
After the contentious four years of the Trump administration, there’s a need for a first lady who can help her husband heal a divided nation.
Jill Biden is that person.
During the 2020 Democratic National Convention, she spoke with hope about the path forward for a nation wracked by a pandemic and subsequent economic crisis.
“How do you make a broken family whole?” she asked. “The same way you make a nation whole. With love and understanding and with small acts of kindness, with bravery, with unwavering faith.”