WASHINGTON – First man, first spouse, first gentleman — whatever assignation is used, former President Bill Clinton will make history if his wife, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, is elected the first woman president of the United States.
The prospect has spawned a fever of speculation, not the least of which is how Bill Clinton, considered one of the most virile, attention-loving presidents of modern times, will behave as a virtual second fiddle in the White House he once commanded.
“He’s not going to wear an apron and quote Tammy Wynette lyrics, that’s for sure,” said Ellis Henican, political columnist for Newsday in New York, referring to the country singer’s hit song, “Stand By Your Man.” Hillary Clinton cited it during her husband's 1992 presidential campaign as an example of what kind of first lady she would not be.
John Gizzi, political editor of Human Events magazine, said he believes clues to the former president's performance as first man can be found in the 1964 movie “Kisses for My President,” in which Fred MacMurray played the husband of the first woman president, portrayed by Polly Bergen.
As they say in the business, gender-bending comedy ensues.
“MacMurray handled it all with good humor. He did it with a lot of panache, and I think Clinton would do that same. But [MacMurray] had to kind of chafe in the role, too,” Gizzi said.
But 2008 is a long way culturally from 1964 — a whole women’s liberation movement away — and the same comedic pratfalls may not necessarily translate to 2008 and beyond. While the ideal first spouse at that time may have been a Jacqueline Kennedy-type — a glamorous White House hostess and quasi-cultural emissary — first ladies in recent times have been transformed to evoke a more independent, less traditional spirit. Perhaps no one is a better example of that than Hillary Rodham Clinton herself.
“I think the role has certainly expanded with the times, and it certainly has, I think, been one of the leading indicators of the changing role of women in our society,” said Mark Wrighton, a political professor at the University of New Hampshire.
This would no doubt ease what may be a very awkward transition for Bill Clinton, said Henican.
“I don’t think his life will be much different than it already is,” he said. “Maybe the job of ex-president and the first lady have actually been coming closer together in recent years. You define issues and causes that are broad and important but not bitterly controversial — the kind he has already been focusing on with the tsunami relief and AIDS relief for Africa.”
Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College in Maine, said Bill Clinton could redefine the role of the first spouse. “There has always been an association between the first lady and so-called ‘softer issues,’ and that’s not the kind of thing you associate the former President Bill Clinton with.”
First lady Dolly Madison was known for her elaborate parties and her legendary talents as a hostess. Harriet Lane was a surrogate first lady for uncle and bachelor President James Buchanan.
In later years, Eleanor Roosevelt shattered stereotypes by campaigning for social justice and becoming a political powerhouse in her own right. Nancy Reagan led the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign. Barbara Bush promoted child literacy.
“I think there is certainly a lot of opportunity for [Bill Clinton] to blaze his own trail,” said Myra Gutin, a professor at Rider University in New Jersey and author of “The President’s Partner: the First Lady in the Twentieth Century.”
Since he will indeed be the first "first man" if his wife is elected president, Bill Clinton can set the tone. He can accept a ceremonial role, escorting Hillary to social functions and trips, though observers are hard pressed to see him hosting the traditional holiday television tour through the White House.
He can serve as a trusted adviser, even using the White House podium to further his own political causes. He may even be appointed to a position within the White House orbit or to an ambassadorship. Clinton supporters have proposed he be appointed to his wife's position as the junior senator from New York if she vacates the seat to become president.
Though most observers consider it unlikely, Clinton could also choose to stay out of the limelight as did former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's husband, Denis, during the 1980s.
That would appear an unlikely scenario, according to political commentator Linda Chavez, who says Clinton could never be happy standing back while his wife has all the fun running the country.
“The problem with Bill Clinton is that we’ll have both a Mr. President and a Madam President living under the same roof and the temptation for him to mediate will be great,” said Chavez, who served as White House Director of Public Liaison and staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during the Reagan administration.
“I doubt the country wants a co-presidency,” she said. “Bill is far more popular than Hillary and will be an asset in her winning the nomination, and maybe the presidency. But he is also a lightning rod for conservatives — as she is — and many people will be concerned about an unelected person actually running the show.”
Henican said he doesn’t think any questions will be asked about who is running the show.
“I think [Bill Clinton] is very cognizant of the issue there — that you want to be helpful and you bring something to the table politically … but you don’t want to make [Hillary] out to be a Lurleen Wallace. That’s not who these people are,” he said, referring to the wife of Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who was elected governor as a surrogate for her husband when he was term-limited in 1966.
However Clinton plays his new role if his wife wins the White House, comics will no doubt rejoice in his return as a staple in their routines, which could particularly make him squirm in jokes about who's the "boss," said Gutin.
“He’s probably going to find himself the butt of a lot of jokes," on the late night talk show circuit, Gutin said.
So is it first man? First husband? If the White House were a ship, could he be first mate?
“First man makes him sound like some sort of a gigolo,” said Henican. “None of the words work. It makes you think maybe first lady isn’t such a great [title] either.”