Melania Trump, Jill Biden and the battle over the Rose Garden

·Senior White House Correspondent
·4 min read
The Rose Garden
The Rose Garden in April 2008, left, and May 2021. (Brooks Kraft/Corbis via Getty Images; via Twitter)

WASHINGTON — Things are getting thorny in the White House Rose Garden.

Just months after then-first lady Melania Trump unveiled her controversial redesign of the beloved space directly outside the Oval Office, some are calling for her successor, Jill Biden, to undo those changes and return the Rose Garden to the celebrated vision realized by the Kennedy administration in 1961.

A petition charging that Melania Trump turned the Rose Garden into “a boring tribute to herself” has 75,000 signatures. “I want our White House to look like America; NOT Russia!!!” one of the signatories said.

The petition has Republicans charging that the Biden administration simply wants to uproot every accomplishment of the Trump presidency, whether it involves flowers or vaccines.

A view of the restored Rose Garden
A view of the restored Rose Garden, August 2020. (Susan Walsh/AP)

“The liberals are determined to erase everything President Trump built,” claimed a recent fundraising email from the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Now they’re targeting what Melania built!”

Melania Trump removed the famous crabapple trees that had been installed by former first lady Jackie Kennedy. Trump’s horticultural aesthetic was somewhat more muted but not outside the gardening norm. Still, it attracted criticism for altering a tradition-bound space and, adding insult to injury, doing so as the coronavirus pandemic raged and the nation experienced protests over racial injustice.

First Lady Trump never endeared herself to the capital’s tastemakers, who were prickly about her Rose Garden redesign. This is just a sad quadrangle,” one critic said. Twitter went into overdrive, as it frequently did during the Trump administration. Things were said about the redesign that were not true.

Spring tulips
Spring tulips in bloom in the Rose Garden, April 2013. (Brooks Kraft/Corbis via Getty Images)

Yet there were some defenders. “This is not Melania Trump drawing a plan on the back of a napkin,” said White House garden historian Marta McDowell in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. Her final assessment was markedly more measured than that of the anti-Trump forces that dominated social media. “It looks very much the same,” McDowell said.

President Biden has sought to undo much of his predecessor's legacy on a wide range of issues, from immigration to climate change. Trump supporters are watching in dismay. “America Voted for a Rest, Not a Revolution,” went the headline of a recent opinion column in the Wall Street Journal. The column was not about gardening — but it could have been.

The claims of an ongoing clash over the Rose Garden is slightly complicated by the first lady’s own intentions. “There are no plans,” Biden’s spokesperson Michael LaRosa told Yahoo News. A few minutes after that came a tweet from Biden herself, showing the Rose Garden in glorious color.

“Spring is here at the @WhiteHouse!,” the message said.

But facts rarely wilt outrage, which grows thick in Washington during every season. It is, one could say, a perennial crop within the Beltway. Expect the garden wars to bloom in the district’s fertile soil.

Long before progressives were outraged by Melania Trump’s redesign of the Rose Garden, conservatives were outraged by Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden on the South Lawn, deeming the very practice of gardening “the brainchild of liberal elites.”

Michelle Obama with students
First lady Michelle Obama planting herbs in the White House Kitchen Garden with local elementary school students, April 2009. (Brooks Kraft/Corbis via Getty Images)

Almost any aesthetic change to the White House occasions outrage. Former President Bill Clinton discovered that in 1997, with the installation of a hot tub. The hot tub was not set up on the Rose Garden, but some were upset all the same. “The hot tub proves Clinton is a wannabe Californian,” one journalist said. Another called him “tacky.”

Doubtlessly the most popular redesign of the White House was a highly temporary one, when President Andrew Jackson placed a 1,400-pound wheel of cheese in the entrance hall. It was quickly consumed by the American people. To date, there are no plans by the Biden administration to install a cheese wheel in the White House.

Andrew Jackson's cheese wheel
President Andrew Jackson's cheese wheel. (Perley's Reminiscences/White House Historical Association)


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