Is Melania Trump the next Jackie Kennedy?

One sociologist views America's first ladies as corresponding to a handful of archetypes.

Carlos Osorio/AP/File
Republican presidential candidate and businessman Donald Trump arrives at the spin room his wife Melania after a Republican presidential primary debate at Fox Theatre, Mar. 3 in Detroit.

Is Melania Trump the next Jackie Kennedy? Could Bill Clinton be the next Nancy Reagan?

What began with a negative campaign ad denouncing the wife of Donald Trump for once posing apparently nude has opened the debate over how the spouses of the 2016 Presidential front runners stack up historically against their predecessors.

The role of first lady, from ceremonial hostess to partner to the president in policy and decision making, has entered the mud-slinging campaign arena.

A Facebook advertisement – produced not by the Ted Cruz campaign but by the anti-Trump super PAC, Make America Awesome – shows Mr. Trump's wife, Melania, posing as a part of her former professional modeling work.

Trump tweeted this response on Tuesday evening:

Cruz responded on Twitter that his campaign had nothing to do with the ad. 

Anger aside, one barometer for first ladies is Siena College's "First Ladies Study," last generated in February of 2015 in partnership with the C-SPAN cable network. The survey has been done with each new administration since 1982.

The survey asks historians, political scientists, and scholars who have studied both the presidency and the institution of the first lady to rank former presidential spouses using 10 aspects of the role.

Eleanor Roosevelt ranked at the top in six of the categories: background, value to the country, leadership, being her own woman, accomplishments, and courage.

Abigail Adams is top rated in integrity and value to the president.

Jacqueline Kennedy is the No. 1 pick for White House stewardship and for public image.

Hillary Clinton was the clear choice of scholars as the first lady they could most imagine serving as president – garnering more than twice the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, and with Michelle Obama a distant third, according to the survey data.

Don Levy, director of the Siena College Research Institute, was asked in a telephone interview to assess the current field of first lady options and compare them to those who have formerly held the position.

“As we continue to be a media-centric society where every moment, every second, every word of these people are chronicled on 24-7 media the first lady, or perhaps the first dude is an extremely important person,” Mr. Levy tells The Christian Science Monitor.

Here's how Levy rates Melania Trump, a former model with a degree in design and architecture from the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia: “Melania Trump is – and you may want to crucify me for this – but I think she is much more of a Jackie Kennedy. That’s how I see her.”

“I think her posing nude would very quickly be forgotten, because she is certainly the type of person who, while certainly well-read and very intelligent, would fit very neatly into that ceremonial role as first lady,” Levy says.

Levy also sees a parallel between Heidi Cruz and then-first lady Hillary Clinton. “I don’t know if she’d be comfortable with that, but that seems to be where the vector is pointed,” he says. Ms. Cruz is a senior executive for Goldman Sachs who formerly worked for the US Treasury Department.

He also sees her in the Nancy Reagan role, he says.

“Nancy Reagan ... would accept the ceremonial but would be a behind the scenes partner in policy,” Levy explains. “[Heidi Cruz] seems ever-present on the campaign. She’s a person has strong views, attitudes and opinions. Flip the table a little bit, how about Hillary Clinton as a first lady? Is Heidi Cruz of that mold? I mean Hillary Clinton was, aside from Eleanor Roosevelt, the most aggressive first lady from day one. Not only behind the scenes, but a very visible partner.”

Levy says that Jane Sanders, a former college president and community organizer, “strikes me as the quiet, behind-the-scenes partner in policy. My sense is she’s a very thoughtful, accomplished person,” says Levy. “She might be the Nancy Reagan type who is silent but by definition absorbs the ceremonial role. Although, actually, she might be more of a Barbara Bush type.”

And then there’s Bill.

“I think people would like to see Bill Clinton as an Eleanor Roosevelt, but I think he’s older now, and that’s behind him. I see him more in a Nancy Reagan role, perhaps, as a partner,” Levy says. “Bill Clinton turns everything on its head. I mean, he’s a unique case. It goes without saying of course that he’d be the first dude.”

Levy adds, “But all that said, I think he’s tailor-made for the partner role.... Hillary Clinton would have to decide where is he in and where is he not in? How much of a partner do I want him to be? What does he get to sit in on? Where do I take his advice where do I not take it?”

“I don’t think the institution will change [with this election], but it will flex a little bit depending on who comes in,” Levy says.

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