PALM BEACH, Fla. – By now you’re exhausted by all the head-swiveling news – the terrorist slaughter in Manchester; the president’s trip to Everywhere; and investigation upon investigation of the possible collusion with Russia, obstruction of justice, and liars by the dozen.
Which is why I’m sitting in Palm Beach practicing Lilly Pulitzer’s dictum: “Being happy never goes out of style.”
Also, President Trump is not here, which seems to please everyone since his frequent forays to his “southern White House” have meant nothing but roadblocks, impenetrable traffic and lousy retail sales.
The otherworldliness of the nation’s most glamorous beach town makes current events seem at times remote. This sense was magnified recently by visions of Trump’s sword-dancing, orb-fondling, and demonstration of ugly Americanism in its latest iteration of massive wealth, arms deals and blind-eye talking – the president’s uncanny ability to see only what he chooses and to speak in terms compatible with that vision. Witness: His condemnation of Iran, which recently re-elected a moderate president, while schmoozing in autocratic Saudi Arabia, whence came 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 terrorists.
Other-awareness has never been Trump’s strong suit, especially as concerns his wife, Melania, who forever-famously appeared to flick away the president’s hand when he reached toward her, seemingly trying to mimic Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was holding his own wife’s hand.
Captured on film, it was the flick (or slap?) seen ‘round the world – and in many cases, cheered. In that instant, the first lady became every American woman who donned a pink-kitten hat to protest the then-new president – and cemented her status as star of the show: “Melania of Arabia, High Priestess of the Testosterone-Intoxicated, Tiny-Hands Revue.” Or something like that.
All politics aside – Melania and Ivanka Trump stood as beacons of light in a part of the world that remains cloaked in the darkness of religious fundamentalism and oppression. Preternaturally beautiful, they seemed to glide as apparitions above the sea of dark suits and white robes and must have struck fear in the hearts of men whose culture demands that women be publicly invisible.
Yes, they were relegated to traditional role-playing in Saudi Arabia. Some might have wished they’d had more significant roles, though surely Melania and Ivanka were grateful to be excluded from the all-guy Toby Keith concert. Otherwise, the importance of adhering to protocol can’t be exaggerated in diplomatic relations.
Many also noted that Melania declined to cover her head, which isn’t required of visiting dignitaries. Nor is going bare-headed considered insulting despite citizen Trump’s tweet criticizing Michelle Obama when she chose to leave her head uncovered. For the record, Laura Bush didn’t cover her head either while in Saudi Arabia 10 years ago, despite breathless headlines to the contrary. Both Greta Van Susteren and I were present and can attest that Bush only briefly donned a black scarf festooned with pink ribbons as a gesture of gratitude for the gift. It came from Saudi women showing their appreciation for the first lady’s efforts to raise awareness for breast cancer prevention and treatment in the Middle East, where, at the time, 80 percent of women with breast cancer died of the disease.
It is true that Western women are encouraged to dress modestly, as Melania and Ivanka did. It helps that both are beautiful and have fathomless wardrobe budgets. Despite their apparent ornamentalism, there’s little doubt both women made a lasting impression on Saudi women, who would have recognized and identified with their feminine power. Wordlessly, they projected strength, intelligence, grace – and a timeless wisdom that all women share.
This was also the impression of a Palm Beach image consultant I interviewed here, Susan Bigsby, who for 30 years has dressed an elite, diverse clientele – from a transgender executive to first ladies to a Syrian Muslim seeking to Westernize her wardrobe with attention to her cultural modesty. Following the petite Bigsby up and down Worth Avenue as she shopped for a client was like tracking a hummingbird on a sugar spree.
“Perfect and stunning,” she said of Ivanka and Melania. “Muslim women, while respecting their religion, also love glamour. You can be sure they were studying – and appreciating – Melania and Ivanka. … They represented the American woman with appropriateness, elegance and style.”
Thus, as your long-suffering Palm Beach correspondent, I propose a toast to America’s first ladies for showing the world that despite our coarse, ham-fisted president, we have not completely forsaken class.
Kathleen Parker can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.