Gail Collins: Who’s the best first lady?

In this image from video, Jill Biden, wife of Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, speaks during the second night of the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. (Democratic National Convention via AP)

Already sorta looking forward to the Republican convention next week. The White House says Melania Trump will be speaking to the American people from the Rose Garden on Tuesday.

Chances are her speechwriters won’t lift any lines from Michelle Obama like they did four years ago. Although if you hear Melania urging her audience to “grab our comfortable shoes, put on our masks, pack a brown-bag dinner and maybe breakfast, too,” when they go to the polls, you will know what happened.

There’s still some first lady fascination at the conventions. Michelle Obama’s feisty first-night Democratic finale had people swooning. (“If we have any hope of ending this chaos, we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.”)

Listening, I remembered the first time I ever saw her at a speaking engagement. It was very early in the 2008 campaign, and she appeared to be a nervous wreck. It wasn’t really the public speaking that scared her — it was the thought that she could say something as an aside, or by mistake, that would screw up everything and ruin her husband’s chance of becoming president.

I dare say we can all agree she’s gotten over that.

Jill Biden, introduced herself to the national audience from a classroom where she used to teach English. Biden talks a lot about education, which is great. And she can remind voters of her husband’s extraordinary story of achievement combined with personal loss.

And when things calm down she has some great sagas from the past, like the time she lobbied against the idea of a Biden presidential campaign in 2003 by walking past his advocates in a bikini with the word “no” written across her stomach.

Besides Barack Obama, the Democrats’ Day 3 was a woman’s place, even if a virtual one. Starring Kamala Harris, of course, and Hillary Clinton, whose attempt to move from that president’s-wife shelf into the top job pretty much defined early 21st-century American politics.

Just for the heck of it, let’s take a historical walk down First Lady Lane. Martha Washington tried, without much success, to get her husband to stop throwing extremely boring dinner parties. Dolley Madison opened up Washington to the kind of socializing nobody expected to find in a primitive capital in a swamp. Visiting diplomats must have thanked God for them at evening prayers.

The modern first lady era began with Eleanor Roosevelt, who was really too extraordinary to compare to anyone else, and moved on to Mamie Eisenhower, who was heavily marketed as a presidential wife. (“Keep our first lady in the White House for four more years!”) Mamie made it very clear that she wasn’t interested in mega-achievement. One of her favorite maxims was: “Every woman over 50 should stay in bed until noon.”

Her favorite color, the nation knew, was pink, and we hit some new marker in 1955 when Ike suffered a heart attack, and the public was informed that Mamie was staying in the hospital room next to his, requesting virtually no special treatment except a pink toilet seat.

We marched on to the present, through Jacqueline Kennedy, who gave the job megaglamour, and Lady Bird Johnson, who Americans came to realize was actually the family breadwinner, through the superefficient Rosalynn Carter and Nancy Reagan, who the public was taught to think of as only a superficial snob until her husband got sick and everyone realized that, politics aside, this really was a love match.

With Hillary, everything changed. She became as much a part of the public consciousness as the men in the White House. She reminded the country that it was time to think about women in a different presidential role. She also demonstrated what a very bad idea it was to try to use the first lady thing as a springboard for the top job.

Although it’s not likely that many of the Democrats at the convention Wednesday were holding grudges. Clinton was one of the stars of the night. “Remember back in 2016 when Trump asked, ‘What do you got to lose?’” she asked them. “Well, now we know.” Marching through modern history with Hillary was at times traumatic, but it was never defeatist. Everybody moves on.

It’s not too tough to have a women-themed night at a political convention featuring a female speaker of the House, a female vice-presidential candidate and the former first lady who reminded the country it was time to think about women in a different White House job.

This convention marks the point where everyone agreed the debate about gender at the top is all over. The future looks pretty terrifying on occasion, but it’s almost certainly going to be one full of expanding political opportunities for women. More once and future female governors and senators. The vice presidency will look like old hat. We’ll refer to the chief justice of the Supreme Court as “her” and gossip about which guy might make the best first gentleman.

Until we think of something better to call him.

Gail Collins | The New York Times (CREDIT: Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

Gail Collins is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.