Jill Biden tests the power of subtleties

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The modest greeting lasted just over a minute. Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska arrived in a black SUV at the south entrance of the White House. Dressed in ivory and wearing pale blue heels, she exited her vehicle in full view of the cameras as President Biden and Jill Biden emerged from an arched doorway to greet her. The US First Lady gave Zelenska a smile and a long hug. The president presented her with a bouquet full of sunflowers tied with a ribbon in the Ukrainian national colors of blue and yellow. It was an official greeting, but also a friendly one.

The flowers were quickly handed over to an assistant; it was a formality after all. Everyone lined up for photos. They posed briefly, stiffly, alongside Ukrainian ambassador Oksana Markarova. They were framed by their country’s flags, with the White House centered behind them and two Marines standing at attention. They smiled pleasantly at the cameras. Everything was very orderly, civil and polite. A tenuous grip on hope as the very important people headed inside where Jill Biden would moderate a panel discussion on the brutality and cruelty of Russia’s war on Ukraine and its human costs.

These two first ladies were engaged in a display of soft power, the kind of soft persuasion and intentional symbolism that has long emanated from the East Wing. It seems like such a strange notion today.

Bidens welcomes Ukraine’s first lady to the White House

But that’s what first ladies do, and maybe in the future, that’s what a first gentleman will do too. But at a time when civility and kindness have been devalued and apolitical conversations about foreign policy and government interventions seem utterly impossible, one wonders if Tuesday afternoon’s carefully choreographed courtesy was anything more than a sweet nostalgia.

It’s hard to be optimistic about the power of a soft touch – about a symbol of American interest and goodwill outfitted in a daisy-print dress and bright yellow pumps. The world is so rude. Yet the first ladies persist.

First Lady Jill Biden visits Ukraine on rare trip to war zone

In May, Biden visited Ukraine on Mother’s Day. She entered a country in the midst of war and spent time with women and children who had been displaced by the bombardments. She met Zelenska, whose family, like so many others, was torn apart. It was a moving occasion, the sight of these two women fearless through danger, unwavering in their concern for children, for civilians. But it is also difficult to remember the encounter clearly, to inscribe the value in the symbolism. So much has happened since the conflict began in February, so many deaths — so many other emergencies, threats and causes for concern.

What does it mean when these two first ladies stand in front of the cameras and ask us to give them our attention and keep in mind the human suffering in Ukraine, alongside inflation, the reversal of Roe vs. Wade, the weakening of democracy, the persistence of armed violence, the climate crisis, the immigration crisis and all the personal crises that families face on a daily basis? They ask us to be civil.

First ladies are no substitute for diplomacy. They are a poor substitute for non-governmental organizations, charities and good Samaritans who are on the ground and in danger. But the American first lady has traditionally been presented as a representative of the American people rather than the country’s politics. It was never quite true and maybe it was always an illusion. But now that illusion is harder to maintain or even believe because politics has chipped away at everything.

Michelle Obama was a popular first lady. In some corners of this divided country, people refer to her as their “first lady forever”, which may well be a compliment to her, but also suggests that no one else can harness the role’s unique symbolism to elevate and enlighten. It’s as if, in Obama’s wake, her superfans either took the title away or confused it with Obama herself.

His successor, Melania Trump, did not seem determined to return the title to neutral territory. She visited the children and watched them doing crafts. She dutifully oversaw the White House holiday decorations. His anti-bullying campaign, Be Best, was hazy. She didn’t get the title back but instead let it go where. In some quarters she was loved, mostly it seems, because she was not Obama.

And now there’s Biden who has inhabited the role, not as an emblem of societal progress or some very glamorous variant, but as a traditionalist: she, the people. Biden is the symbol of calm, the nurturer, the sincere voice of the concern of the American people. “You can’t walk into a war zone and come back without feeling the heartbreak and pain of the people I met,” she told Zelenska. The two sat across from each other at a conference table in the Blue Room of the White House with their respective teams as they struck up a conversation about the mental health of mothers, children and refugees in Ukraine.

Biden was joined by members of the president’s administration, as well as second gentleman Doug Emhoff. She promised that each agency representative present would explain precisely what they are doing to be of service. It was the business of political pundits, medical professionals and diplomats. The procedure does not need first ladies. But the cameras don’t come to watch the lunatics wade through briefing books, footnotes and addenda. The cameras come to capture the choreography.

Four small glass vases of sunflowers, blue hydrangeas and white orchids lined the center of the wooden table. Water glasses with paper lids were lined up with military precision. Everyone stood behind their chairs for the introductions and then sat down in unison. In a world that feels like everyone is in the middle of a constant fight over things big and small, we persist in believing that these subtleties matter.

Attendees joined their manicured hands on the table as Biden spoke. Emhoff leaned forward. The first ladies smiled at each other. It was a reassuring dance. Then the cameras left the room.

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