The cover story of this week’s New York magazine is an excellent reported profile of Kellyanne Conway, packed with intimate details patiently gathered by the magazine’s Washington correspondent Olivia Nuzzi. It is a gripping piece, one that does what all good journalism ought to do—leave its readers with a more nuanced and deeper understanding of an issue (or, in the case, a person) than was previously possible. My favorite bit is the breathtaking description of Conway eating a 7-inch scallion (“like a sword swallower on Coney Island or a snake eating a mouse”), followed by the inclusion of Conway’s own admission that until she ate it, she had thought it was a piece of asparagus. The anecdote made me finally understand the oft-repeated claim that Conway is likeable in person.
But the piece fails in one spectacular and bizarre way: It does not prove its thesis. The headline on the cover of the magazine declares Conway as “The True First Lady of Trump’s America.”
Lest you worry this is a case of some disconnected editor applying an inaccurate description, the piece actually does echo the language championed in that cover line. Early on, Nuzzi writes:
By March, she was less a pollster, campaign manager, or communications guru and more what the press expected Ivanka Trump would become in the absence of Melania Trump, who remains in New York with her young son, Barron — a pervasive female double of the president, an extension of his will and much more fiendishly committed to her boss than anyone else working on his behalf. Fewer than 50 days into the new administration, Conway had become almost inseparable from the public’s idea of the Trump White House. That is, the functional First Lady of the United States.
Wait, what? What actions has she taken that put her in the place of “functional First Lady of the United States”? Who cares that Hillary Clinton used the same room as her office when she was first lady, or that Conway is picking a few issues to focus on? Her prime tasks, supported by everything else in this profile, still seem to be advising the president and occasionally serving as his mouthpiece. The Venn diagram of what Conway is doing and the responsibilities of the functional first lady of the United States barely even features an intersection.
Serving as first lady is largely about being a hostess, giving tours of the White House to school groups, and welcoming foreign leaders. Yes, these women take on targeted issues, but usually ones that keep them safely disconnected from the battleground of the presidency. And while it’s true that Melania isn’t stepping up, it also doesn’t really matter that much. First lady is mostly a crazy role that ought to be abolished.
Conway, on the other hand, is doing much more than playing hostess. The piece concludes that Conway’s main job “remains playing media foil, which can mean punching bag, and often results in Conway herself being the story.” This, again, is almost directly the opposite of what first ladies normally do.
Conway does seems to have unprecedented visibility and popularity for a mere advisor. Nuzzi writes:
To judge by her reception at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual assembly of Republicans that takes place at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, she might as well be a second president, mobbed by reporters and conservatives young and old, who turned around and walked backward to take selfies as she made her way toward the escalators. “We’re on Snapchat!” a woman told her excitedly as she moved sideways, angling her camera at her face. “Thank you for saving the world,” a man said. “Oh,” Conway said, “we’re just getting started.”
People might respond to a popular first lady that way, I guess. But even considering how beloved she was in her party, I don’t think many people thought Michelle Obama was saving the world. On the other hand, this greeting of Conway actually seems appropriate for people devoted to the Trump cause, given the high-profile role she has had in securing the presidency and then serving in the administration.
The final piece of evidence for Conway-as-first-lady seems to be this:
With the president holed up in the White House, separated from his wife and sons, and nostalgic for the energy and camaraderie of the campaign trail, Conway’s familiarity is a comfort. She’s often the only senior staffer who’ll indulge his preference for fast food and even accompanied him after his joint-session address to Congress for burgers.
What does this prove, besides the fact that Conway and her boss seem to be friends? There’s a vague hint of the idea that men and women can’t have platonic relationships and that men are bound to misbehave in their wives’ absence (more plausible in Trump’s case given his … romantic history). But insofar as demonstrating that Conway is trying to fill in a first lady–shaped hole, this is not convincing. Indeed, the profile goes to great lengths to explain how generally sociable and charming the woman is. Perpetually hungry Conway would try to curry favor by getting burgers with her boss.
So should we blame this bad cover line on the fact that sexism is still alive and well in Trump’s America, and that strong women are still regulated to the role of wife, supporter, soother, but never leader? No—in fact I think Nuzzi does a great job of highlighting the tangled bizarreness of Kellyanne Conway and feminism, overall. And of course, Nuzzi is not responsible for the line; her editors are. But in the end, I think this line was created to do exactly what bombastic cover lines have long been designed to do—sell magazines.