Byron York: In today’s supercharged politics, even gardens start fights

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, August 26, 2020

By Byron York

It has long been accepted, at least in some circles, that there is a condition known as Trump Derangement Syndrome. But if there are still any skeptics out there, consider the reaction to first lady Melania Trump’s renovation of the White House Rose Garden.

The modern version of the garden was created during the Kennedy administration and updated during the first year of the Reagan administration. It was a living thing, something intended to grow and change.

In 1981, first lady Nancy Reagan asked the godmother of the garden, philanthropist Bunny Mellon, who created the original design for Jacqueline Kennedy, “to return to the White House and re-energize the planting that had become lackluster over the preceding 20 years,” according to a report by the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. “Mrs. Mellon suggested removing two of the crabapple [trees] in each bed and pruning them back into shape … along with new plantings of lilies and roses.” In other words, Mellon did not view the garden as an unchangeable monument.

That was 40 years ago. In that time, parts of the garden have grown out of their original proportions, while use of the garden for events, from news conferences to parties, has increased. Working with Mrs. Trump, the Committee for the Preservation of the White House conducted a study and produced a 200-page report on the state of the garden. Among other things, they found some of the infrastructure of the garden was a mess. “Loose and exposed wires were found everywhere and connected using electrical tape,” the report said.

Infrastructure improvements, and much more, were part of the first lady’s update of the garden. “The changes you see are the result of a thoughtful and collaborative process carefully crafted with the help of scholars and experts in architecture, horticulture, design and historic preservation,” Mrs. Trump said at an event christening the garden on a recent Saturday. “This renewal included improvements to the infrastructure and utilities, allowing this beautiful garden to more readily meet the needs of a busy White House. These improvements also make the garden fully accessible to all Americans, including those with disabilities.” (As for power cables and wiring, they are hidden beneath a newly installed path of limestone pavers.)

So what’s the problem? When the garden improvements were announced, you might have thought the first lady had created the set for a new Nuremberg rally. “The Trump family did its best to turn the lovely Rose Garden into a neo-fascist parade ground,” tweeted longtime Washington journalist Howard Fineman.

A former New York Times reporter, Kurt Eichenwald, who has been the source of much erratic commentary in the Trump era, targeted Melania Trump’s background. (Born in Slovenia, the first lady came to the United States 24 years ago and became a naturalized U.S. citizen 14 years ago, in 2006.) “It is a destruction of our history, something no other first lady had the gall to do,” Eichenwald tweeted. “This is the first time I have been furious that @FLOTUS is a foreigner. She has no right to wreck our history.” Eichenwald took some hits on Twitter for his xenophobia and later deleted his tweet.

Critics posted photos of the old Rose Garden in full bloom in spring alongside the newly redesigned garden with the normal fewer blooms in August. And then political Twitter pounced.

“Devoid of color, they somehow brought a white supremacy vibe to the #RoseGarden,” said one tweet. “The Trumps are all Satan,” said another. “You took away all of the colors and turned Jackie Kennedy’s beautiful Rose Garden into a funeral home for white supremacists,” said another. “She was going for that ‘Nuremberg rally grounds’ look,” said yet another. “I seriously hate the Demon and his wife,” said one more. “Look at what they ruined. I can’t wait until Jill Biden is first lady and brings back the #RoseGarden full of flowers, trees and nothing but sheer vibrance.”

The short version: In a matter of hours, the Rose Garden had become just another battleground in the Trump wars, like the post office but even sillier. The first lady’s effort was serious, carefully done and needed.

(And, like the original garden, paid for by private funds.)

But everything is fair game in today’s supercharged political atmosphere. Even flowers.

Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.