Former United States president Bill Clinton spoke yesterday at the Democratic National Convention, where he made a case for his wife, and for his own barrier-breaking role as first gentleman.
If Hillary Clinton is elected president, the most important difference between Bill and the presidential spouses who came before him won’t just be that he is a man, and a former president. It will be something else entirely: His admitted and well-documented flaws. In a letter to Betty Ford, then the first lady, a Texas woman wrote, without a trace of humour, “You are constitutionally required to be perfect.”
It would be laughable for anyone to expect that of the 42nd president. In fact, Bill will be liberated from the fundamental, suffocating burden of first wifehood precisely because we know him so well, and most of us, like it or not, have come to accept his glaring imperfections.
No wife with Bill’s history of philandering would ever be accepted as first lady. Imagine the frenzy if Melania Trump had a documented past of marital infidelity or if Laura Bush or Michelle Obama had cheated on their husbands while they were in the White House. The very idea of a first lady with a past as checkered as Bill’s is incomprehensible. Betty Ford’s divorce was controversial enough.
We expect the president’s wife to be a devoted spouse and mother and nothing short of the embodiment of American womanhood. Lady Bird Johnson summed up these impossible expectations best when she said Americans wanted their first lady to be a “showman and a salesman, a clotheshorse and a publicity sounding board, with a good heart and a real interest in the folks”.
The reason Bill would be exempt from such impossibly high standards is partly that he is who he is, but it is also that he is a man. He exists outside of all norms: His gender and his membership in the elite fraternity of ex-presidents (he is one of only four former presidents alive) are inextricable. “A male spouse who wasn’t a former president would have been a way to tiptoe into this uncharted territory,” said Gahl Hodges Burt, social secretary under Ronald Reagan, “instead of blasting our way into it.”
The role will shift to accommodate Bill, both as a man but perhaps more important as a former president. There is little doubt that Bill will be involved in policy and have an important role to play while he is in the White House. Hillary has said she will give him the heavy assignment of “revitalising” the economy.
Bill’s exceptionalism would make it easier for the next man married to a president to continue his career while living in the White House — something no first lady has done. For example, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s husband, Bruce Mann, who is a law professor at Harvard, would have a far easier time continuing to teach if his wife ever became president because of the way Bill could transform what it means for a man to be married to the leader of the free world.
The former president would probably not be asked to take up the household duties we expected career-driven women like Michelle and Hillary to embrace as presidential spouses. The Clintons will most likely pick an experienced social secretary who can handle details usually assigned to the first lady, including giving final approval to floral arrangements, guest lists and dinner menus.
Clinton insiders doubt that Bill will take up residence in the quiet East Wing, where first ladies have generally been confined. “Personally, I can’t imagine his office in the East Wing,” said Melanne Verveer, Hillary’s chief-of-staff in the White House. In fact, friends of the Clintons use terms like “special envoy” and “elder statesman” when they consider what his expansive role would look like.
In the past, Americans have been largely unforgiving of perceived lapses when it comes to first ladies. A member of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration grumbled that Eleanor Roosevelt, the original activist first lady, should “stick to her knitting”; Rosalynn Carter earned the nicknames “steel magnolia” and “the second president” because she sat in on her husband’s cabinet meetings and quietly took notes. West Wing staff members called Nancy Reagan “the missus” behind her back, and the press contemptuously referred to her as “Queen Nancy” because of her designer clothes.
When Barbara Bush was first lady, students at Wellesley College protested the decision to have her speak at their graduation, arguing that she was chosen only because of the man she married. Hillary’s approval ratings plummeted after she moved into an office in the West Wing — the first time a first lady had done that — and when she was appointed by her husband to lead the failed health-care overhaul. And critics called Michelle’s signature campaign to end childhood obesity the “food police”.
Name a first lady and she has been reprimanded for being too outspoken or too reserved, too controlling or not ambitious enough.
Recent first ladies will undoubtedly envy the freedom a first gentleman Bill Clinton would be granted if his wife wins the election. He’s not perfect, which means he is perfectly suited to remake the role of presidential spouse.
— New York Times News Service
Kate Andersen Brower is the author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.