For the Better part of the past decade, Americans regularly watched the affection of President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama on display for all the world to see. The hand holding, kisses, and gazing into each other’s eyes seemed to reflect a genuine love at the center of their relationship. There are pictures that show the joy of being in each other’s company, Barack’s gentle caress of his wife Michelle time and time again, and the laughter that kept them grounded in the midst of the enormous pressure that came with being the most powerful couple in the world. The Obamas gave us glimpses into their intimacy, romance and love because completely restraining it would have been a disservice to who they are and how they genuinely feel about one another. All the while, the Obamas also maintained a healthy distance of the inner workings of their marital life.
The more modern conservative traditions of generic hand holding, public respect and acknowledgment of a first lady in speeches will remain a welcomed expectation of an American president and first lady. The Obamas maintained previous norms and redefined what is possible, and acceptable, when it comes to presidential and first lady public conduct. But in a good way.
However, at times, what we’ve seen publicly from Donald and Melania Trump, has ranged from reciprocal public humiliation to the appearance of relational unhappiness. Who could forget the look of utter disdain Melania gave Trump at the inauguration after he turned away from her. We’ve watched videos of Donald Trump publicly humiliating Melania by leaving her behind on the airport tarmac and having to walk to the other side of the limousine by herself. And there was the time Donald Trump was greeting the Obamas and he left his wife Melania to fend for herself. More recently, there have been two instances of videos going viral showing Melania Trump consciously swatting away her husband’s attempts at public hand holding while in Europe and the Middle East. These actions are not what we normally expect to see from a president and First Lady.
We obviously don’t know the context or circumstance that may have influenced these publicly viewed actions toward each other, and we don’t know the ins and outs of their marriage. It is of course tempting to speculate about the rumors surfacing of separate bedrooms and the fact that Donald Trump is a known adulterer, and misogynist. However, it is not my place, nor my business to judge another couple’s union.
What we do know is American presidents and first ladies are inextricably linked when it comes to public imagination, symbolism and larger narrative about a president’s time in office. These embarrassing, yet real moments witnessed between Donald and Melania Trump won’t define his presidency and may not define their relationship. But if a picture is worth a thousand words, I prefer the Kodak camera of Michelle and Barack Obama.