From Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower’s meeting,
to the visit Laura Bush hosted where Jenna and Barbara Bush showed Sasha and Malia Obama how to slide down the banister in the Residence, to the visit where Michelle Obama invited Melania Trump even after Donald Trump had questioned her husband’s citizenship, this tradition has long been one of the first lady’s many unwritten obligations. And Melania Trump has discarded it.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that Melania Trump has flouted a social norm of her position. Every one-term president — and his wife — have felt the sting of defeat, but unlike her husband, none of them have refused to accept the election results. Betty Ford was furious when her husband lost his 1976 race to Jimmy Carter. “No matter who follows you, you know they didn’t deserve to be there,” she once said. Scathing, yes, but brutally honest. Ford canceled the tour she was to give to Rosalynn Carter twice, and when it finally did take place, Carter said she received a “brief, but cordial”
walk-through. The important thing, though, is that it happened.
Ceremony matters. Traditions matter. Our expectations about what’s normal and civil behavior in our society matters. The usually peaceful transfer of power happens once or twice a decade. Lady Bird Johnson called Inauguration Day “the great quadrennial American pageant,” and I agree. It’s a rare event when we’re reminded that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and while a meeting over tea served on silver platters in the Residence between two powerful women married to presidents might seem quaint, that tradition is meaningful. It grounds us, knowing that two people who may have very little in common are acknowledging that something as momentous as the transfer of presidential power also touches the lives
of real families not so unlike ours.
Another difficult transition came in 1980, after Carter lost to Ronald Reagan, and Rosalynn Carter had to give Nancy Reagan the tour. Still, she dutifully walked Reagan through the second and third floors, describing her efforts to showcase American paintings. But the outgoing first lady abruptly cut things short without showing Reagan the presidential bedroom and study. The mood was reinforced by the temperature: Jimmy Carter, because of the ongoing energy crisis, insisted
on keeping the living quarters a cool 65 degrees during the day and 55 at night.
“The chill in her manner,” Nancy later wrote, “matched the chill in the room.”
These meetings aren’t always filled with tension; they sometimes set the stage for long-lasting relationships. Michelle Obama and Laura Bush were able to work together later in part because of those first interactions.
The transition from the Bushes to the Obamas is considered one of the smoothest in modern history, though Laura had to put aside some ill will during that visit. As she wrote in her memoir, “It is easy to criticize a sitting president when you are not the one in the Oval Office, when you are not responsible for the decisions that must be made…I thought of that when I heard the daily rants from the campaign trail. It got so that even the weather seemed to be George’s fault.”
Barack Obama, she felt,
was more consumed with attacking her husband than he was with going after his rival for the presidency, John McCain.
But Laura Bush invited Michelle Obama to the White House twice, once alone and once with her daughters. She showed her the dressing room window, which has a view through the Rose Garden to the West Wing, where first ladies can occasionally catch a glimpse of their husbands at work It’s a standard stop on the tour. But the first stop on Laura Bush’s tour was special:
The bedrooms she thought Sasha and Malia, then ages 7 and 10, would like best.
These visits make the presidency — and all the family roles that go with it — more connected to the humanity of the people who hold them. In their meeting as mothers with young daughters were perhaps the seeds of the moment in 2014 when Obama, then first lady, and Bush hosted a meeting
(coinciding with President Obama’s US – Africa Leaders Summit) with the spouses of African leaders that focused on the role they could play to improve education and health care in their countries.
At a 2016 event at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, Michelle Obama praised her predecessor. “As you all know, I deeply admire and respect Laura. And I think that it’s important to collaborate with people you admire and respect, regardless of party. That’s what makes a democracy work, truly.” Last April, the two former first ladies participated in a joint event to raise money for Covid- 19 response. A collaboration like this is hard to imagine between Melania Trump and any other first lady.
Former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama will attend Joe Biden’s inauguration and after they will join Biden at Arlington National Cemetery for a wreath laying ceremony
at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Michelle Obama, Laura Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton will also be there. This display of unity will bring Melania Trump’s decision to do away with tradition into stark relief.
When Hillary Clinton gave Laura Bush her tour, she led her to that window in the first lady’s dressing room and said,
“Your mother-in-law stood right here and told me that from this window you can see straight down into the Rose Garden and also over to the Oval Office.” I wish Melania Trump had done the right thing and shown Jill Biden that same spot, whether she felt like doing it or not.