Center for Strategic Communication

Patricia Lee Sharpe

Toward the end of Monday’s session of the Republican National Convention, after Melania Trump had spoken, there was an interesting exchange among the members of the PBS-NPR commentary crew. The detractors spoke first. Melania’s remarks about her husband hadn’t been very personal, let alone intimate, they complained. There had been no charming vignettes of romantic first encounters, no anecdotes about family life, no humanizing foibles.  Not much humor either. Thus, the antis concluded, she’d failed in the primary spousal mission at a convention: make the great man lovable.

Immediately Amy Walter leaped to Malania’s defense. Since Melania was unaccustomed to speaking from a political podium, she said, the antis were being unfair. They’d expected too much. So, yes, Melania had fallen short of our expectations, but she deserved an A for effort.

I commend Amy’s attempt at kindness, but have to ask: was she blind? There was nothing wobbly, uncalculated or unscripted about Melania’s performance, which was predictable. She’s no shy violet, no wifey waif. Though born in Soviet Slovenia, she’s hardly an unsophisticated refugee from the fringe lands of Europe. She is a professional model with years of experience at elegantly strutting her stuff in the fabled capitals of couture—and before that she was carefully groomed and coached to become a beauty contest winner. Her performance in Cleveland was equally programmed and polished , another Trump “reality” show, a wow in its way, which is to say, designed to be a source of entertainment, not enlightenment.

Let’s look at some telling details. For one thing, Melania is no ordinary billionaire’s wife, designer dressed, daily coifed, but far from perfect, thanks to a few underlying irregularities. She’s the Platonic ideal of beauty, the very apotheosis, right up there with the top models in the glossy ads for clothes and cosmetics in Vogue and Vanity Fair. But she’s also like them in a less savory way: expressionless, lifeless, all humanity obscured by the mask required for the job. A bit ghoulish, actually. Or cyborgian.

Well, her handlers did allow her, a few times, to bestow a ghost of a smile on the conventioneers. Just barely. Not enough to crack the crust of high end make up or threaten the emergence of life-affirming smile lines in the near future. And did you notice that there was no connection between those grudging “smiles” and her eyes, always narrowed to steely, calculating slits, watching the audience like a lioness ready to pounce on a baby antelope. All of which makes her the perfect partner for her shape-shifting husband, an extreme case of the pot calling the kettle black when he cites Hillary for contradicting herself.

In her remarks, Melania dressed cliches in elegance. Meanwhile, Donald plays crude clown to distract attention from the void where careful policy planning should be taking place. What a team! If you don’t fall for one, you’ll fall for another, and in either case the package is so well constructed that you almost fail to notice how empty it is, in the sense that we voters are being given nothing of value.  Sleight of hand. Pure magic.

At some point in that NPR-PBS discussion of Melania’s performance, someone noted a saving grace. Melania had declared that, as First Lady, she would concern herself with women’s and children’s issues. Hurrah! Substance at last.  Hearing the same words, I wondered what tasks might attract her attention. How about women’s reproductive health—would she promote “choice” or a “right to life” agenda? She’s a savvy businesswoman as well as a wife and mother, so how does she feel about equal pay for equal work for the non-billionaire class? And education being so important to children, might she be eager to champion improvements in our dilapidated school systems? Or maybe she had in mind something unique to her own interests and talents. But that throwaway line is all we got. More facade.

On Monday night the mysterious Melania was dressed, drilled and sent on stage to perform, and perform she did. So do her justice. She’s a pro. She did her job to perfection. There’s only one problem. The leadership of a great nation is not the equivalent of a slickly produced “reality” show. This catwalk approach to governance concerns me more than the plagiarizing of a few paragraphs from Michelle Obama’s First Lady comments. On the other hand, maybe this example of intellectual theft allows us to call her Crooked Melania.