Washington: He’s unmarried. An avowed bachelor. If he won the White House, he’d have no spouse at his side.
But Senator Lindsey Graham, thinks there’s an option. It includes his sister, maybe some female friends.
“We’ll have a rotating first lady,” he told London’s Daily Mail this week.
But why does an unmarried president even need one (or, in Graham’s case, several)? Does the country still require a stand-in hostess at social events? Or a singular person to use the national platform to adopt a cause widely considered serious, but not serious enough for the president to undertake?
These are questions we haven’t faced in more than 100 years.
The last bachelor elected to the White House was Grover Cleveland in 1886, but he married in his first term. James Buchanan, elected in 1857, was the only president to stay single his whole life.
Even so, he had a first lady. The job went to his niece, Harriet Lane Johnston, who assumed the role of White House hostess and champion of several social causes.
In the outside chance that Graham were to win the presidency (he’s polling around 1 per cent), he’d likely be expected to have a first lady to, at a minimum, fill in at state dinners and holiday events and other such White House affairs.
In the 21st century, having a ceremonial hostess isn’t really required, certainly not just to have “someone in a pretty dress to be available to shake hands,” said Katherine Jellison, an expert in “first lady studies” at Ohio University.
But even as the role has evolved, the social side of government remains an integral part — even for those first ladies (Hillary Rodham Clinton, for example) who preferred policy initiatives to floral arrangements.
Still, to diminish the role to merely its more aesthetic side is to miss its greater value. The modern first lady “is the closest person in the White House to the president ... designated to be a voice, an advocate, a surrogate,” said Anita McBride, former chief of staff for Laura Bush and now at American University. “The position is one that is constantly evolving.”
The Brits seem particularly intrigued by the notion of an untraditional first lady. The Daily Mail wrote an article in May about C-SPAN President Susan Swain’s prediction that a Hillary Clinton administration could see Chelsea Clinton acting as the first lady.
“There is a social function to the first lady’s role, and that will not go away,” Swain, who wrote a book on first ladies, told the tabloid. Daughter Chelsea would be the logical person to fill the slot, she reasoned.
Granted, a “first gent” surely could pick centrepieces or Easter-egg designs. Or take on a social cause. But it would be a wee strange if Bill Clinton managed the East Wing after running the West Wing.