First lady Melania Trump packed two pairs of shoes for her journey to tour the devastation in Texas on Tuesday. One for air travel, another for her on-the-ground duties as first lady. The former was a sleek pair of black stilettos, the latter a pair of fashionable white sneakers.
It was not newsworthy.
Ever eager to incriminate the Trump family, media members laced up and jumped at this opportunity to declare an error on the part of the first lady, finding in the stilettos a clue that revealed her true attitude to be one of detachment and apathy.
Again, she changed into tennis shoes before deplaning in Texas.
Nevertheless, her pre-flight outfit, one she donned only for travel, elicited plenty of criticism, some of which was masqueraded as reporting. The only reason for political journalists to report on a pair of stilettos Trump wore to board an airplane, one that was characteristic of her usual wardrobe, is to opportunistically confirm the biases of her detractors.
An 800-word essay on the matter written by Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan began: "Melania Trump is the kind of woman who travels to a flood-ravaged state in a pair of black snakeskin stilettos."
"Heels this high are not practical," Givhan continued, "But Trump is not the kind of woman who has to be practical. Heels this high are not comfortable. Comfort is not the point. Neither hers nor yours."
Practical to what? This makes no sense. The implied argument is either that high heels are never "practical" and, by this logic, always undermine a first lady's efforts to comfort people, or that Trump should have worn a more practical outfit just for her trip on Air Force One. The first option seems unbelievable and the second seems desperate, but why bother to make either if one is not straining for a reason to critique her?
"Heading off to Texas, she looked dressed to view a natural disaster from a distance, from on high, not up close," Givhan added. "Her ensemble implied that people's personal stories would be ferried to her after they had been vetted and tidied up. There was no suggestion that Trump would be flat-footed in the muck, hearing their truth in messy, tearful open-ended confusion."
Givhan is correct — the first lady's initial outfit was indeed intended to "view a natural disaster from a distance" — the distance between airplane and the ground. Making an issue out of the contention that she should have dressed more practically to sit on Air Force One is either stunningly petty or was conceived before she got off the plane in new clothes and then contorted to acknowledge that.
Givhan did, of course, recognize Trump's change of outfit, but dismissed it in two paragraphs as "optically optimal," though ultimately nothing more than "a costume change for another fashion moment."
The meat of her argument, which seemed to encapsulate the core complaint of those who took issue with the stilettos, was summed up in the observation that, with her fashion choice, Trump was shedding the pretense that she could truly empathize with the storm's victims:
It was also an image that suggested that Trump is the kind of woman who refuses to pretend that her feet will, at any point, ever be immersed in cold, muddy, bacteria-infested Texas water. She is the kind of woman who may listen empathetically to your pain, but she knows that you know that she is not going to experience it. So why pretend?
Well, sometimes pretense is everything. It's the reason for the first lady to go to Texas at all: To symbolize care and concern and camaraderie. To remind people that the government isn't merely doing its job, that the government is engaged with each and every individual. Washington hears its citizens. That's what the optics are all about. Sitting around a conference table and talking into a speaker phone are not good optics. A politician has to get on the ground in work boots and a windbreaker. Rolled-up sleeves. Galoshes. Baseball caps.
But Melania Trump is not a politician. If her second outfit, the one she actually wore in Texas, was acceptable (as the author seems to concede), is the article's true argument as trivial as a claim that first ladies traveling to disaster zones must be dressed practically during all segments of that trip? Holding up a pair of heels that Trump wore to board an airplane, not even the shoes she wore on the ground in Texas, as a symbol of her supposed detachment from suffering Americans betrays a powerful hunger to criticize her.
A Politico article claimed: "The emblematic first image of the first lady heading off to visit a hurricane in heels — a moment that the president has seized on as an opportunity to project strength and show off decisive leadership — instead became another symbol of a White House that can often seem out of touch."
But that article cited only two other instances, one involving the wife of Steve Mnuchin and not even a member of the administration or first family, to substantiate the claim that the Trump White House "can often seem out of touch."
In fact, that's the last phrase I would use to describe a White House that's hosted Kid Rock and Ted Nugent, pits itself against "The Swamp," regularly organizes rallies outside Washington, and skips out on elitist Beltway traditions such as the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner.
Furthermore, much of the media spent this past weekend knocking Trump for posting off-topic tweets about matters not related to Harvey, demonstrating his focus was drifting from NAFTA to Sheriff David Clarke while people fought for their lives and their property. If that's your standard, stick to it and focus on the utter devastation in Texas and Lousiana, not the clothes Melania Trump wore on an airplane that transported her across the country to tour it.
The Washington Post might consider changing its slogan to "Democracy dies in distraction."
Emily Jashinsky is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.