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All presidential elections are, by definition, historic, but some break more new ground than others.
And this next one?
“Uncharted waters,” says Dee Dee Myers, who was press secretary in the Clinton White House.
“Historical moment, cultural moment,” says Chris Lehane, a longtime Clinton campaign operative.
Their adjectives were not about the possibility of the first woman in the Oval Office (though yes, they all think that’s a watershed) but rather about the office on the other side of the building, in the East Wing. The election of a woman president would mean that for the first time, the first lady would be … a man.
With all due respect to Carly Fiorina’s husband, the man they have in mind is Hillary Clinton’s, based on the odds. And those who study first ladies are all but giddy at the thought that they might get to watch what he might do with the position.
It’s not just that he would be the first “first man” (some joke he should be called “Adam”), but also the fact that he would be this particular man — a former president, a legendary schmoozer and shaker, with the potential to redefine the (let’s face it, anachronistic) role.
It’s tough to imagine that Hillary Clinton’s spouse will redecorate the White House, as did John Kennedy’s, nor choose new formal china, as did Ronald Reagan’s. What then will he do? Become a kind of shadow secretary of state, swooping in on diplomatic missions? Be his wife’s key cheerleader and arm twister on Capitol Hill? Stay as far away from administration business as possible? Take a page from Shonda Rhimes’s former-first-lady-for-president plot, and brag about the power that comes with being a pillow away from the president? Or maybe follow Frank Fiorina’s lead and retire completely, to play golf and accompany his wife to events? (Seriously, no one who knows him can imagine that one…)
Some who have watched the Clintons for decades say it’s safe to assume this is something the couple has discussed, but probably not in a way they will share with the public. (And, in fact, a campaign spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.) That only enhances the fun of speculating, as some who study the Clintons and others who study first ladies gamely do below…
Would Bill Clinton take on the role of White House “hostess”?
After all, that was initially the only expectation for the president’s spouse — that she oversee the household staff and greet guests at the constant calendar of receptions. Frankly, for the first decades of the republic, it was a job mostly noticed when the president didn’t come with a wife, creating a scramble to fill the gap. The first woman to be called “first lady” in the press, for instance, was not a spouse, but a niece — that of James Buchanan, who never married and who several biographers consider the first gay American president.
And after John Tyler’s wife died of a stroke a year into his presidency, his daughter-in-law became hostess, then his youngest daughter, and finally his second wife — a total of four first ladies in four years.
Even in the modern era, when security concerns have long since reduced the number of visitors who just wander in, the first lady is still looked upon as the social arm of the presidency — choosing flowers for state dinners, hula-hooping on the front lawn, greeting the White House Christmas tree and offering up cookie recipes for a bake-off.
Clockwise from left: Smithsonian, Underwood Archives/Getty Images (2), Virginia Historical Society, via Wikimedia Commons
“There will be no bake-offs,” says Lehane, who is now a Democratic campaign consultant. “Though there might be policy-offs.”
“I don’t think he’s going to be going to the Senate ladies lunch,” agrees Lewis Gould, author of “American First Ladies: Their Lives and Legacies” and a professor emeritus at the University of Texas. Nor will there be many of the kinds of meet-and-greets with women’s groups and civic groups that are still a staple on Michelle Obama’s day. “Bill Clinton, after a few weeks of that schedule, would be ‘get me out of here,’” he predicts.
Is that another way of saying that the archaic, sexist role will look ridiculous when we start expecting a man to do it?
“It sure looks like sexism,” says Carl Sferrazza Anthony, the historian in chief at the National First Ladies Library in Canton, Ohio. “There’s definitely a thread of that.”
Take Michelle Obama, he says. Her Let’s Move! campaign has arguably “had a permanent effect, a thumb print, a vibe shift on the way our nation eats. She has changed the federal labeling of food, probably for a generation. And yet,” he points out, “the Huffington Post covers her in their Style section and writes mostly about what she wears.”
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The reason for this, he’s come to believe, is more complicated than just gender. “Americans have always had a distrust of a person who has so much influence and wasn’t officially elected or officially appointed,” he says.
The public therefore constantly monitors the president’s spouse for any sign that he or she is “overstepping” the boundaries of the job description — even though there is no unanimity on what that description actually is. Since the opposite of “power-grabbing” is “traditional,” “domestic” and “ladylike,” those qualities have become the default of most first ladies — an end result that might resemble conforming to sexist assumptions, but is subtly and importantly different.
Mary Beth Durkin, a PBS documentarian, agrees. “Presidents have always leaned on unelected trusted officials,” says Durkin, who made PBS documentaries about Nancy Reagan and Betty Ford and is working on her next one, about Rosalynn Carter. Voters tend to accept that nonelected influence when it comes from outside the family — Roosevelt’s “Kitchen Cabinet” for instance, or Reagan’s group of California billionaires — but “the public does not like it when it’s his wife.”
Or her husband?
That’s the historical question, Anthony says. If the voters express the same reservations about “our first first gentleman,” as he predicts they will, and place the same restrictions on the role, that will make it clear that “what was perceived as sexism is partly a response to gender, yes, but also a response to discomfort with unelected power,” he says.
Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP
Or maybe, others say, the fact that Mr. Clinton is not just a spouse but also a former president will change the public’s view of power by proximity. What he chooses and refuses to do, they hope, might give the role the respect and heft that it historically tends not to have.
“Maybe if he does this job for a while, people would accept how important a job it can be,” says Myers, who is now the head of public relations for Warner Brothers and still considers Bill Clinton a friend. “The thing that infuriated me in 2008 was the fact that she had been first lady was treated like a meaningless credential.”
The public, too, might finally be chafing at the double standard, she and others suggest. For evidence, one need look no further than the parade of small-screen first ladies who are all far too qualified for the job. On “House of Cards,” first lady Claire Underwood demands that her husband name her ambassador to the United Nations because she’s tired of waiting her turn for power. And on “Scandal,” Mellie Grant uses her time in the East Wing as her ticket to a Senate seat, with an eye on the presidency, raising the question (at least until the finale) of how Shonda Rhimes would write Fitzgerald Grant as “first spouse.” (Contrast all this with Hollywood’s first flirtation with a woman president in the 1964 comedy “Kisses for My President,” in which Polly Bergen plays the first of her kind and Fred MacMurray plays her spouse. He spends the entire film searching for his purpose in the White House. In the end, she finds herself pregnant and resigns because, natch, you can’t be pregnant and president.)
Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection
In the absence of teas and ribbon-cuttings, perhaps he’ll be given an official policy role?
Depends what your definition of “official” is, experts say. And your definition of “policy.”
Wives have long weighed in on policy. Even in the days when the job was mostly ceremonial, Mary Lincoln wrangled her chosen candidates into the cabinet, Ida McKinley refused to greet visitors from the anti-suffrage movement, and Edith Wilson was her husband’s main sounding board (and then, of course, she pretty much ran the government after he suffered a stroke). In the more modern era, Mamie Eisenhower refused to invite Joseph McCarthy to a reception for the rest of the Senate, Nancy Reagan orchestrated the ouster of White House chief of staff Donald Regan, Betty Ford spoke out for the Equal Rights Amendment before her husband did, and Rosalynn Carter led a diplomatic team to Latin America and negotiated on behalf of the administration.
That said, there is a line between unofficial and official, and crossing it is where presidential spouses test their times. There was some pushback when FDR named his wife an assistant director of civilian defense, but still, she was just an assistant. There was a bit more objection when Rosalynn Carter was named honorary chair of the President’s Commission of Mental Health, but still, it was only honorary. Then there was full-on, blistering outrage when Hillary Clinton was put in full charge of the President’s Task Force on National Health Care Reform, with generous funding and a sizable staff.
None of those wives were former presidents, though, now were they? Will that make it more acceptable, or less so, for him to play a policy role?
It would probably make it easier for him to be a sounding board, as he is already assumed to be one. He would likely express his opinions on events and policy; few who know him can imagine him keeping quiet. And he would likely come in handy as an administration surrogate — a role he has played over the past eight years for President Obama, heading to Haiti with George W. Bush after the earthquake, and negotiating the release of Euna Lee and Laura Ling from North Korea.
Photo: Underwood Archives/Getty Images
“That’s a very good role for him, gallivanting around the world,” Myers says. “He travels all the time already, and he is one of the most famous people on the globe, also one of the most popular.”
But that next step, taking an official, titled position in his wife’s administration is complicated by the couple’s own campaigning history. Back in 1992, they ran as a “two for one” deal, and she eventually moved her office into the West Wing — a move so controversial that none of her successors dared repeat it. Then, while campaigning for her second Senate term, they described themselves as co-presidents while in the White House, arguing (unsuccessfully, as Myers points out) that her time as first lady counted as governing experience.
Some predict the Clintons will likely take that tack again, but in reverse. Vote for her, get him too — then give him a meaty role (one that doesn’t clash with the nepotism rules adopted after JFK named his brother attorney general). It’s an approach that recognizes the former president’s popularity, Lehane says, and sees him as an asset. “If you do polling,” he says, “75 percent of people say they voted for him, which of course they didn’t, but it shows how much of a draw he is. A 2016 version of the ‘two for one’ would be an asset.”
Others warn that this time around, Hillary stands to lose more than she gains by giving Bill a substantial portfolio. “This can’t look like a co-presidency,” Durkin says. “Her problem is going to be owning the presidency and establishing herself as a woman president standing on her own two feet.” To do that, she warns, Hillary’s husband needs to stand “as far away as possible.”
Photo: Ron Frehm/AP
If that’s the goal, then maybe he stays out of the White House business completely? And keeps running the Clinton Foundation? That would be his job?
Now we are in truly uncharted territory: Can a presidential spouse hold a job?
It’s a question periodically discussed in the abstract, most recently during the 2012 campaign, when President Obama said of his wife (who earned more than $300,000 a year as vice president for community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Medical School before resigning to join his first campaign).
“I want to make sure that when she’s working, she’s getting paid the same as men,” Obama said. “I gotta say that first ladies right now don’t [get paid], even though that’s a tough job!”
His supporters heard that as appreciation for the work his wife did. His critics heard whining. Laura Bush weighed in soon after that, in a video clip from a C-Span series on first ladies. When asked if that job should be paid, she said no, citing “plenty of perks,” particularly the full-time chef. But then she continued: “The interesting question really is not should they receive a salary, but should they be able to work for a salary at their job that they might have already had. That’s what we’ll have to come to terms with. Certainly a first gentleman might continue to work at whatever he did. … That’s really the question we should ask, should she have a career during those years that her husband is president, in addition to serving as first lady.”
Only one first lady in history has actually held a job — the first Mrs. Wilson continued her paid work as a landscape painter, “which she could do without leaving home and going to an office,” Anthony notes. She continued to enter her art into competitions, too, but used “another name so there would not be accusations of favoritism.”
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At least one candidate’s wife — Howard Dean’s — said she planned to continue to work (as a doctor) if her husband were elected, but never had the chance to carry through. At least one second lady (Jill Biden) did continue to work (as a professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College) but her husband was vice president. One (Eleanor Roosevelt) received $1,000 for each monthly column she wrote for the magazine Women’s Home Companion, and about the same amount each month for her six-day-a-week “My Day” column, but she donated that money to charity. And many a first lady has created non-profits while in “office,” beginning with Jackie Kennedy, but none came into the White House as the head of an existing charitable entity.
Is this a precedent that Bill Clinton is likely to change?
Possibly, says Lehane. That was Mr. Clinton’s accepted role during most of his wife’s time as a senator and as secretary of state, he says, so voters are used to it. “I could see him staying in that role and from there she would still be able to deploy him to interact with foreign leaders, doubling the bandwidth,” he says.
Not possible, says Frank Rich, who wears both a pundit’s hat, as political columnist for New York Magazine, and a Hollywood hat, as the executive producer of HBO’s “Veep.” Each spate of news about who has donated to the foundation in the past, and how much Mr. Clinton was paid for speeches over the years, makes this option ever less likely, he says.
“He cannot have a full-time job taking money from outside interests and foreign governments,” he says. “He will have to resolve the Clinton Foundation stuff.”
And we will have to resolve what we call him, no? Maybe “first spouse”?
Again, it depends. As a former president, Mr. Clinton retains the title of president. So when addressing the couple directly, one could say “Mr. President” and “Madame President.” (And, fun protocol fact — both of them would have the right to be played into a room to the tune of “Hail to the Chief.”)
But what to use in the sentence that previously contained the phrase “first lady”?
Anthony says he prefers “first gent,” since “first gentleman,” he says, “is a mouthful,” and “first dude,” while catchy, is how Todd Palin referred to himself while his wife was governor of Alaska, and is hence “already taken.”
Gould votes for “first guy,” because it seems to fit this particular husband more, but can also see referring to them as “Clinton 1” and “Clinton 2.”
Lehane suspects the press in particular will use “the former president,” and insiders will refer to “42” and “45,” as they do with the Bush father and son. There is also the option of “first man,” he says.
When asked in 2007, Bill Clinton himself suggested “first laddie” (get it? Sounds like “first lady”?), and a few buttons depicting him in a kilt sprouted on the campaign trail.
Rich suggests “first schmoozer.” But whatever the term, he adds, “It will be interesting, and, one has to hope, entertaining.”
Not to mention transformative.
“It’s not simply a trivia question,” says Gould. “With a man in the role, an American institution that is hundreds of years old would be forever changed.”
Agrees Myers: “It will stretch the options so far that it will break the model.
“It’s like when men take paternity leave and make it not just something women do,” she continues. “Once a man does it — particularly this man, because he’ll break every rule — how do you ever go back to the old stereotypes and limits?”