America has no formal role of princess, but certain women throughout history — fortunate enough to embody the perfect confluence of beauty, power, and poise — have ascended to a near-royal status of feminine iconography. Today that is Ivanka Trump. But in the 1970s, that was Julie Nixon Eisenhower.
As Robert Mueller’s investigation into meddling in the 2016 elections heats up, the inevitable comparisons of President Donald Trump and Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal have surfaced in the media. “Trump Repeats Nixon’s Fateful Panic” the New York Times reported in January. “Trump on Russia Investigation Has All the Markings of Watergate” the Hill echoed in February.
Both men have become known for increasing hostility towards the press, firing the special prosecutors leading investigations against them, and enjoying the complicity of Republican Congress members who are trying to protect them. But there is another commonality that connects the two presidents: their daughters.
Ivanka Trump is the eldest daughter of Donald Trump and his first wife, Ivana. From pictures alone, you can sense Ivanka's formidable elegance: one part supermodel genetics, one part Ivy League legacy, and one part second-wave feminism in a Lilly Pulitzer dress. When she first joined her father's campaign, many had high hopes that she would be a moderating force on her father's agenda. That hope quickly dissipated.
Julie Nixon Eisenhower, who also has a penchant for bright yet conservative shift dresses that Lilly Pulitzer would likely appreciate, is Richard Nixon's younger daughter. Julie has been at the heart of American politics since she was a child. In early interviews she was girlishly animated and seemed deeply at ease with the press. She has been called everything from her father's “most respected defender” to “the most credible Nixon.” Though 33 years apart, both daughters have been used strategically to advance their father's agenda in a distinctly feminine way.
Ivanka and Julie were raised in the quintessential upbringing of the 1%: they both attended Chapin, a prestigious all-girls school in Manhattan, and became central figures in New York City’s gilded world of boarding schools, debutante balls, and glitzy fundraising parties. After graduating from university — Julie from Smith College and Ivanka from the University of Pennsylvania — both married men of a similar high-society pedigree. Julie wed the grandson of former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, David, and Ivanka, to Jared Kushner of the New York real-estate dynasty, Kushner Properties.
There is something very moving about Julie Nixon Eisenhower, but it is not Julie Nixon Eisenhower. It is the idea of Julie Nixon Eisenhower, essence of daughter — a better daughter than any of us will ever be.
Even before the presidency, both women took the spotlight in a way their siblings did not. Ivanka modelled, ran her eponymous clothing and jewellery business, and worked closely with her father at the Trump Organization and on The Apprentice. Julie was the assistant managing editor of the Saturday Evening Post before Nixon’s 1968 election, but was also one of his most active campaigners from as early as her days as a student. Smith College was a burgeoning mecca for supporters of the Women's Liberation Movement while Julie still attended, especially following the graduation of famous alumna Gloria Steinem. And while it's clear Julie considered herself an advocate for women's rights, her father's administration sent mixed messages when it came to taking women's equality seriously. Years later, in a 1999 interview, Julie describes the “hard edge of the women's movement” that the Nixon administration was weary to support.
“She has become her father's principal defender, his first lady in practice if not in fact,” Nora Ephron wrote in her 1973 essay, “The Littlest Nixon.” Ephron was of course referring to Julie Nixon, but the same musings have been made of Ivanka Trump. Like Melania Trump, Richard Nixon’s wife Pat was uncomfortable interacting with the press, so Julie’s involvement in her father’s affairs positioned her as the defacto first lady. Indeed, in her stately yellow frock, matching kitten heels and pocketbook, there is something reminiscent of Jackie Kennedy in Julie. She looks the part. “It was something I decided to take on myself,” she reportedly said, “I just thought I had a story to tell and that there were certain points I could make and I was happy to do it.”
“It’s shattering to be told your father stinks,” Julie Nixon told a local newspaper in 1968 as her father campaigned for his second run as president. She was credited as being the one to convince her father to run again after his loss to John F. Kennedy in 1960, and ardently fought for her him to resist resignation, which to her disappointment, he did in 1974. “I come from the Fighting Irish side of the family. [We] didn’t want my father to resign because [we] wanted him to fight the charges and vindicate himself,” she said in 2014.
While it’s tempting to give these women some leeway for defending the president, when you look at the racist and sexist institutional legacies they left in their wake, that clemency becomes harder to stomach.
Like Julie, Ivanka’s power is critical to her father’s interest because of precisely what she is: a daughter. “There is something very moving about Julie Nixon Eisenhower,” Ephron wrote, “but it is not Julie Nixon Eisenhower. It is the idea of Julie Nixon Eisenhower, essence of daughter — a better daughter than any of us will ever be.”
Dr. Peggy Drexler, a research psychologist and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family,” explained what Ephron might have meant by the essence of daughter: “Many daughters retain the desire to please their fathers, no matter how old they are, how well-established in their respective careers, or how otherwise independent. In fact, many are so successful precisely because of this desire; the compulsion to continue to meet, if not always consciously, their father’s expectations.”
Calmly, skilfully, and infused with feminine flair, Julie knew exactly how to wield her power to paint a favourable picture of her father when it mattered. In an interview on the Watergate crisis, which she names in air quotes, Julie counters the perception of Nixon’s stern, hippie-hating ways by insisting that he is “a very gentle man.” Before the interview, she describes her father’s motorcade becoming undriveable on a recent trip because of all the flowers piled on top of it.
Ivanka has been criticised widely for claiming political neutrality while clearly supporting and advancing her father's agenda. While she has said she disagrees with her father on a number of issues, when pressed, she fails to articulate just what. After Pussygate (pardon the pun), she insisted he was an advocate for women. When asked about Robert Mueller's investigation, she echoed her father’s statements that “there is no collusion and was no collusion” in true Trump form. When pressed on her father’s racist messaging, she brushed aside such speculations as “rather ridiculous.”
Most recently, on the topic of her father’s sexual misconduct allegations for an NBC exclusive, when asked if she believed her father’s accusers, Ivanka responded, aghast: “I think it’s a pretty inappropriate question to ask a daughter if she believes the accusers of her father when he’s...stated that there’s no truth to it. I don’t think that’s a question you would ask many other daughters.”
Ivanka has spoken at congressional tax reform initiatives and brushed shoulders with world leaders at at the G20 Summit, but when it comes to uncomfortable questions, she spins on her heels to shift how she’s perceived in relation the president. No, you’re not talking to to White House Official Ivanka Trump who is capable of speaking to issues of public interest. Instead, you have sullied the ears of Donald Trump’s eldest daughter, who — to borrow another line from Ephron — “is the only woman over the age of 22 who still thinks her father is exactly what she thought he was when she was six.” Or at least she’s really good at pretending.
Underlying Ivanka’s unique role are the assumptions all of us carry with us about fathers and daughters. When Ivanka says, “I believe my father, I know my father,” she is playing into the Daddy’s girl trope most of us have seen before. Dr. Drexler explained that women today are increasingly turning to their fathers as role models, especially when it comes to their career.
In that sense, Ivanka is demonstrating a modern model of the daddy’s girl: successful father, successful daughter. Ivanka is beautiful, ambitious, and above all an extension of her father’s power.
Our fascination with women like Ivanka and Julie, then, derives from their veiled subservience to the president’s interests. Ivanka is Donald Trump’s, softer, classier counterpart. And wouldn’t it be cruel to shatter her wide-eyed idolisation of her father with an offensive question about his past sexual misconduct or general unfitness to be president?
This is not to take away these women’s agency; make no mistake, Ivanka and Julie are fighting for themselves as much as they are fighting for their fathers. But more than Julie or arguably any other first daughter in history, Ivanka deliberately positioned herself as a political tool at the centre of her father’s administration. And that’s why her comments about her dad don’t quite check out. She has made it abundantly clear that she will manipulate any form of power — be it feminism, business, or the Office of the President of the United States — in order to preserve her own self-interest.
That is, after all, what Trumps do, and that, in the end, is all she is.
Julie Nixon Eisenhower did not respond to Refinery29’s request for comment.