CLEVELAND » Presenting her husband as softer and gentler than the man known by the public, a heartfelt Melania Trump introduced herself today to a nation that has often seen but rarely heard from her through months of the tumultuous 2016 White House campaign.
“He is tough when he has to be, but he is also kind and fair and caring,” Mrs. Trump said in a speech that was the main event on the first night of the Republican National Convention. “This kindness is not always noted, but it is there for all to see. That is one reason I fell in love with him to begin with.”
Mrs. Trump, in a white dress with elbow-length sleeves ending in big puffy cuffs, spoke after an uncharacteristically brief introduction from her husband, who called her “my wife, an amazing mother, an incredible woman.”
The Slovenian-born former model has been often by his side throughout the campaign, dressed impeccably but rarely speaking. She descended the escalator with Trump when he announced his presidential bid at Trump Tower last year, but his daughter Ivanka introduced him that day, a spouse-like role she has frequently assumed throughout the campaign.
Prior to Monday, Mrs. Trump had spoken on her husband’s behalf only a few times, and briefly, and her remarks on Monday lasted roughly 10 minutes as she spoke slowly in heavily accented English.
The 46-year-old made clear her love for her husband, testifying to a softer side of the blustering real estate mogul the country knows and spoke of his love for family. And without dwelling on her own humble upbringing in an industrial town in what was then a part of communist Yugoslavia, she spoke of her family, her sister Ines, her “elegant and hard-working mother Amalia,” and her father Viktor, who “instilled in me a passion for business and travel.”
“From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say,” Mrs. Trump said, adding that she has passed those values to the couple’s 10-year-old son, Barron.
Mrs. Trump also gave a hint of what she might try to do as first lady.
“I will use that wonderful privilege to try to help people in our country who need it the most,” she said, describing helping children and women as “one of the many causes dear to my heart.”
Yet whatever role she aims for, the contrast between Mrs. Trump and her counterpart on the Democratic side, Bill Clinton, is huge. He a former president and political natural, while she is a neophyte in the political world.
Even as she largely avoided the spotlight prior to Monday, Mrs. Trump briefly became an issue in the race in March, when an anti-Trump super PAC released an ad with a risque photo of her from a GQ magazine photo shoot, showing her handcuffed to a briefcase, lying on a fur blanket.
“Meet Melania Trump. Your Next First Lady,” the ad said.
Trump responded by re-tweeting side-by-side images of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s wife, with an unflattering grimace, and Mrs. Trump in a gauzy, glamorous pose.
Mrs. Trump did not dwell on that controversy or any other Monday, but she did seek to counter Donald Trump’s image as anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. She insisted his campaign would represent “Christians and Jews and Muslims, it includes Hispanics and African Americans and Asians, and the poor and the middle class.”
If Trump were to be elected president, Mrs. Trump would be the only first lady who is the third wife of a president and the first to be born and raised in a communist nation. She wouldn’t be the first model — Pat Nixon and Betty Ford both modeled, too. And Louisa Adams, who was born in England, was the first president’s wife to be born in another country.
The glitter and glitz of being Donald Trump’s wife is a far cry from the sleepy southeastern industrial town of Sevnica, where she was born in 1970 as Melanija Knavs. Her father was a car dealer while her mother worked in a textile factory. The family lived in apartment blocks overlooking a river and smoking factory chimneys.
She found an escape through modeling when she was spotted in the Slovenian capital by a photographer. At age 16, she took modeling jobs in Milan and Paris. She changed her name to Melania Knauss and settled in New York in 1996. Two years later, she met her future husband at a party in Manhattan.