A Female President? Part 3, Notes to the First Laddy

Barack Obama, Bill Clinton

If a woman can be president of the United States, does that mean a man can be first lady? With just a swipe of Wite-Out, the White House stationery could be made to read “first lad”—or even, with a mere letter’s insertion, “first laddy.” Those cost-saving possibilities aside, a male presidential spouse would more likely be referred to as the first gentleman. The first spouse or consort (as Queen Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip, is known) are two unisexual possibilities.

What Does the First Lad/y Do?

First lady is an unpaid position with no official job description. She is expected to serve as the White House hostess and to plan and attend official dinners and other events. Traditionally the role goes to the president’s wife, though another female relative or friend has stepped in on occasion. Harriet Lane, for example, served as first lady for her bachelor uncle, James Buchanan, from 1857 to 1861.

CSU Archives/Everett Collection
Jacqueline Kennedy (CSU Archives/Everett Collection)

Lane set the mold for the modern first lady: popular with the people, fashionable and interested in public service. She advocated for better living conditions on the reservations to which Native Americans had been driven, and she endowed a pediatric clinic in Baltimore that still exists today. Jacqueline Kennedy oversaw a renovation of the White House and was famous as a fashion plate and a poised and mannerly hostess during her abbreviated tenure.

Today’s first lady chooses a cause to promote during her period on the national stage. Nancy Reagan launched the antidrug “Just Say No” campaign, Barbara Bush led literacy efforts, and Michelle Obama addressed childhood health and obesity with her “Let’s Move” initiative.

Former first lady Laura Bush, wife of President George W. Bush, has suggested the American first spouse role be reconsidered to allow the person holding it to continue a career while her husband (or his wife) is in office. Bush also acerbically recommended the press scrutinize any future first gentleman’s hair and clothing—“or maybe their weight,” she added slyly—as it does with first ladies. Her tongue-in-cheek advice for the first gentleman? “Stand back and be quiet.”

David Giesbrecht/©Netflix/Everett Collection
The warring first couple in House of Cards (David Giesbrecht/©Netflix/Everett Collection)

The first spouse is ostensibly the person closest to the commander in chief and can be a significant and influential partner. The Netflix series House of Cards takes that idea to its logical conclusion, casting Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood as a sinister Lady Macbeth who has yet to find a line she’s unwilling to cross. Witness Claire, spouse of Kevin Spacey’s President Frank Underwood, making backroom bathroom deals with the Russian ambassador to the United Nations and threatening to allow a colleague’s fetus to “wither and die inside you” by withholding health-care benefits. But the constraints of the role prove too much for Claire, and her husband’s attempt to put her in her place—“You will be the first lady!”—spurs her to commit a first lady first, walking out on the marriage and the full-time non-job job.

First Lads and Ladies of 2016

The role, and title, of first spouse has become a subject of discussion during the campaign for 2016 presidential nominees, because the field is not composed entirely of married (heterosexual) men. One early candidate, Lindsey Graham, is a lifelong bachelor, and two are married women. Graham, mentioning a sister and “a lot of friends,” suggested his White House would have a “rotating first lady.” He left the race before the primaries, however, letting his sister and friends off the hook.

Hillary Clinton joked to late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel that while she strove to shatter the glass ceiling to the presidency, former president Bill Clinton was determined to break the “iron grip that women had had on being spouse of the president.” Rattling off “first dude, first mate, first gentleman” as possible titles, Mrs. Clinton conceded that what to call her husband was complicated by his still being known as Mr. President.

Carly Fiorina made it part of her campaign repertoire to contrast her marriage to that of her powerhouse competition, repeating the claim that “unlike another woman in this race, I actually enjoy spending time with my husband.” Fiorina’s husband, Frank, who put his career aside years ago to support his more ambitious spouse, may find the second-banana position a natural fit. He would prefer, he has noted, to be called First Frank.

What Would a First Gentleman Do?

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Barbara Bush (Superstock/Everett Collection)

In one of the Democratic debates, Clinton was asked how her husband might fulfill first spouse duties. She touted, beyond Bill’s abilities as a host, his experience with reviving a failing economy. In interviews she has mentioned his value as an advisor with a vast well of experience, not only as the nation’s executive and commander in chief but in dealing with other world leaders. In fact, Bill’s silver tongue has won over at least one erstwhile adversary: former first lady Barbara Bush, who, along with her husband, George H.W. Bush, was pushed out of the White House by the Clintons.

Mr. Clinton can look overseas for role models. In style, he may fall somewhere between the self-contained Joachim Sauer, German chancellor Angela Merkel’s husband, and the loose-tongued Denis Thatcher, the British prime ministerial spouse during the 1980s. Sauer, a chemistry professor, participates little in affairs of state, even skipping his wife’s inauguration, though he did accompany the chancellor to visit George W. and Laura Bush on their Texas ranch. Thatcher called his wife, Margaret, the Boss and was quick to rise to her defense when needed. He aimed his most notorious outburst at the “bloody BBC poofs and Trots” and “load of pinkos” responsible for a TV interview in which the Iron Lady was raked over the coals for the deadly sinking of an Argentine naval cruiser during the Falklands War.

Although certain aspects of the first spouse position are steeped in tradition (namely the hosting duties), each successive person to fill the role has done it in her own way. Current first lady Michelle Obama, on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, offered advice that seemed perfectly suited to the proclivities of Bill Clinton: “Follow your passion. Just be you.”

Feature Photo: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong