Katy Burns: Over-the-top criticism sprouts from a fresh garden

  • A view of the restored Rose Garden is seen at the White House on Aug. 22. AP

  • Roses are shown as journalists tour the restored Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on Aug. 22. AP

  • Journalists get a preview of the restored Rose Garden at the White House on Aug. 22. AP

  • The work on the garden took three weeks and was done in the spirit of its original 1962 design. AP

  • Melania Trump will delivered her Republican National Convention speech from the garden, famous for its close proximity to the Oval Office. AP

Monitor columnist
Published: 8/30/2020 6:20:07 AM

After nearly four years of Donald Trump in our White House, I understand millions of Americans’ general loathing of all things Trumpian. Any act by a Trump – any Trump – is greeted with skepticism. Well, make that great hoots of disbelief and derision.

But … condemning a refreshed and reinvigorated White House garden, stuffed with lovely flowers and comfortable walkways? Just because of who oversaw it?

Yup. Melania Trump – doing her first lady service thing, which we demand of presidential spouses even as we give lip service to allowing them to live their lives as they wish – first turned her attention to areas of the White House in need of a little TLC. The venerable building is, after all, 228 years old, an age it couldn’t have achieved without lots of care and repair.

Among other things, the first lady re-covered the walls of the Red Room with fresh crimson fabric – the old had faded so much it had become more like the Pink Room – and commissioned a new, much-admired rug for the Diplomatic Reception Room, which sees so much foot traffic a visible path had been worn in the old one.

She added a tennis pavilion on the South Lawn, and restored Richard Nixon’s bowling alley, including its cherished wooden lane. So far, so good, very acceptably first ladylike activities.

And then – fanfare here! – she turned her attention to the White House Rose Garden, which we all know well because for decades it’s been the site of various doings, including presidential press conferences.

In fact, Melania’s husband is particularly fond of pontificating from the Rose Garden, which is just outside his office – and thus involves less walking – because he believes the natural light is more flattering than the glare of cameramen’s lights to his distinctively orange-tinged skin.

Really! He has commented on the effect himself.

In any event, Melania viewed the garden as ripe for her attention. The end result was unveiled a short time ago. Well! From some in the chattering class you’d think she’d single-handedly napalmed a timeless horticultural masterpiece.

The anger was particularly potent when comparison photos of the old garden and the new were widely circulated, the 1962 garden captured in the full flush of spring, with tulips and flowering trees blooming their heads off, and the newly designed garden now – in August, a time notable for the absence of flowers.

Was that a tad misleading? Well, yeah. But none of the critics were noting the seasonal difference in judging Melania’s garden. Instead, Twitter exploded in indignation at the garden – and the Trumps.

“The Trump family did its best to turn the lovely Rose Garden into a neo-fascist parade ground,” proclaimed longtime Washington journalist Howard Fineman, a master of self-righteousness.

“Devoid of color, they somehow brought a white supremacy vibe to the Rose Garden,” one tweeter sniped. “The Trumps are all Satan,” added another. “She was going for that ‘Nuremberg rally grounds’ look,” piped up a third. And another: “I seriously hate the Demon and his wife. Look at what they ruined. I can’t wait until Jill Biden is first lady and brings back the Rose Garden full of flowers, trees and sheer vibrance.”

For pure unadulterated overwroughtness, though, it was hard to top one Kurt Eichenwald, a one-time New York Times writer whose focus once was on business matters but who felt compelled to turn his talents to horticultural criticism.

“It is a destruction of our history, something no other First Lady would have had the gall to do. This is the first time I have been furious that @FLOTUS is a foreigner. She has no right to wreck our history.

“I still find it unbelievable that @FLOTUS who has only been a citizen since the middle of GW Bush’s second term had the audacity to wreck the Rose Garden, to pull up history dating back a lifetime. These trashy, evil, stupid people need to get out of our house. What GALL she has.”

Whoa! Even other critics of the Trumps called foul on that one. Whereupon Eichenwald tried one of the lamest, most mealy-mouthed “apologies” I’ve ever read.

“People may have misunderstood my point about Melania being a foreigner & ripping up plants put in place by almost 100 years of First Ladies,” he tweeted. “It was a complex point…. people who come to America should celebrate its history, not ignore it. But I deleted the tweets. I did not have the ill-intent they seemed to have conveyed to so many.”

Oh? Even Trump-haters wouldn’t swallow that. His initial outburst was petulantly childish.

Eichenwald and his ilk should get a grip. The sacred rose garden started life as a bunch of stables and didn’t become a garden until horse-drawn carriages had long been replaced by automobiles and Edith Roosevelt, Teddy’s wife, thought the location was just the spot for a nice colonial garden featuring not only roses but such old-fashioned flowers as Johnny-jump-ups, daisies and wildflowers.

It was officially named the Rose Garden in 1913 by Ellen Wilson, Woodrow’s wife, who replaced the wildflowers with a formal rose garden designed by a prominent landscape architect of the day. Its proximity to the Oval Office made it easy for the president to step out for some fresh air, as it is today.

Fast forward to the early ’60s, when Jackie Kennedy recruited her great friend Bunny Mellon, a rich socialite whose avocation was designing gardens – which she did uncommonly well – to add some pizzazz to the garden.

Mellon designed the overall garden as it is today, adding 12 flowering crabapple trees, boxwood, perennials, annuals and – of course – more roses. She anchored the garden’s corners with four magnolia trees. And thus it remained – until Melania.

And, truthfully, Melania’s garden – which was actually designed by a prominent firm of landscape architects – isn’t really all that changed, except for removal of the remaining crabapple trees, which will allegedly be planted elsewhere on the grounds. And the truth is that they’re likely close to the end of their lives, which for most crabs is just 30 to 70 years.

And, importantly, the garden is still filled with roses – including some of the old ones.

Meanwhile the garden redesign was really a much-needed rehabilitation, allowing the installation of much needed drainage and a vastly improved electrical system, replacing the spliced makeshift hodgepodge of wires that crisscrossed the place, that will serve future presidents for years. Until, of course, it needs refreshing – and change.

The critics should remember that gardens are living things. They grow, they change – and they decay and eventually even die. And are replaced. This time, I’m with Melania.

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)

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