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Photo from the Democratic National Convention via The Associated Press / In this image from video, Jill Biden is joined by her husband, Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, after speaking during the second night of the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.

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 this year 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 finale had people swooning.

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.

Day 2 of the Democrats' virtual gathering starred Jill Biden, introducing herself to the national audience from a classroom where she used to teach English, and Day 3 was a mostly 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.

Sarah Polk's husband, James, was president just before the awful period leading up to the Civil War. She served him as everything from secretary to political strategist until he died right after ending his term.

After the Polk era, presidential spouses retreated into the background. (Zachary Taylor's wife, Margaret, was so low profile that when Taylor died in office, an official deathbed portrait of the grieving survivors showed the first lady with her hands covering her face — nobody was entirely sure what she looked like.)

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!")

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 helped us see 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.

And now, nobody needs to. 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.

The New York Times

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