The humble greeting lasted little more than a minute. Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska arrived at the South Entrance of the White House in a black SUV. Dressed in ivory and light blue heels, she exited the vehicle in front of the cameras as President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, emerged from an arched doorway to greet them.
The American first lady offered Ms. Zelenska a smile and a hug. The President presented her with a bouquet of sunflowers tied with a ribbon in the national colors of Ukraine, blue and yellow. It was an official greeting, but also a friendly one.
Everyone lined up for photos. They posed short and stiff together with the Ukrainian ambassador Oksana Markarova. They were framed by their country’s flags, with the White House behind them and two Marines standing to attention.
It was all very neat, civil and polite. A faint grasp of hope as the very important people walked in, where Ms. Biden would be leading a conversation about the brutality and cruelty of Russia’s war against Ukraine.
These two First Ladies displayed gentle power, the kind of gentle persuasion and deliberate symbolism that has long emanated from the East Wing. It seems such a curious concept today.
But that’s what first ladies do, and perhaps sometime in the future a first gentleman will do it too.
At a time when courtesy and kindness have been devalued and non-political talks about foreign policy and government intervention seem utterly impossible, one wonders if Tuesday’s neatly choreographed comedy was anything more than sweet nostalgia.
It’s hard to be optimistic about the power of a gentle touch – a symbol of American commitment and goodwill, accessorised in a daisy-print dress and bright yellow pumps. The world is so rough, but first ladies insist.
In May, Ms. Biden visited Ukraine on Mother’s Day. She arrived in a country in the midst of war and spent time with women and children displaced by the bombing.
She met with Mrs. Zelenska, whose family, like so many others, was torn apart. It was a moving sight, the sight of these two women, fearless in the face of danger, unshakable in their concern for children, for civilians.
What does it mean when these two first ladies stand in front of the cameras and ask us to pay attention to them and the human suffering in Ukraine alongside inflation, the Roe v Wade overthrow, gun violence, the climate crisis and all the personal crises that that families are confronted with every day? They ask us to be polite.
First ladies are not a substitute for diplomacy. They are poor substitutes for the NGOs and charities and Good Samaritans who are on the ground and at risk, but the American First Lady has traditionally been seen as representing the American people rather than representing the country’s politics.
That was never quite right, and maybe it was always an illusion, but now that illusion is harder to maintain or even believe because politics has messed with everything.
Michelle Obama was a popular First Lady. Some people refer to her as their “Eternal First Lady,” which may be meant as a compliment to her, but also suggests that no one else can use the role’s unique symbolism to uplift and enlighten.
Her successor, Melania Trump, seemed unconcerned about returning the title to neutral territory. She visited children and watched them doing handicrafts. She dutifully oversaw the White House Christmas decorations. Her anti-bullying campaign was blurry. She didn’t reclaim the title but let it wither away.
And now there’s Ms. Biden, who has inhabited the role not as a symbol of societal progress or as a glamor twist, but as a traditionalist: she, the people.
Mrs. Biden is the symbol of calm, the nurturer, the heartfelt voice of concern for the American people.
“You cannot go to a war zone and come back without feeling the sadness and pain of the people I have met,” she told Ms. 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 started a conversation about the mental health of mothers, children and refugees in Ukraine.
Four short glass vases with sunflowers, blue hydrangeas, and white orchids sat on the wooden table. Water glasses with paper lids were lined up with military precision. In a world that feels like everyone is in the midst of a constant brawl over things big and small, we continue to believe those subtleties matter.
It was a soothing dance. Then the cameras left the room.
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/first-lady-shows-that-in-a-world-torn-apart-by-war-displays-of-niceties-still-hold-power-41856209.html First Lady shows that in a war-torn world, niceties still have power