Tuesday 23 January 2018

Will Bill follow the 'Mr First Lady' rules?

Bill Clinton will set a first if Hillary wins the White House. But what kind of first gent will he make, asks Celia Walden

Which way to turn: Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Which way to turn: Bill and Hillary Clinton.

'One thing I do not want to be called," Jacqueline Kennedy warned her White House secretary when she moved in, "is First Lady. It sounds like a saddle horse."

Now that his wife has made history by becoming America's first female presumptive presidential nominee, Bill Clinton may well share the sentiment - although any association with mute, purpose-bred animals will be the least of his concerns. And besides, it's too late. Given the variety of pro-Hillary swag available at campaign stops and on the internet - "Bill Clinton For First Lady" sweatshirts, "Mr First Lady" tank tops and "Anything Bill Can Do, Hill Can Do Better" mugs - America's already enjoying the joke a little too heartily. Should Hillary triumph over Trump on November 8, however, "the novelty factor of a female president will outweigh that of a male first spouse", insists political writer and blogger Chris Weigant.

I'm not convinced. Surely any "gag" that inspires this many bumper stickers is set to run well beyond the moment Bill's position is formalised.

His official title - "First Gentleman" - may already be established, but with the US press now riffing on that ("First Bubba" and "First Dude" are two favourites) and no historical precedent either to the title or the situation itself (Clinton would also be the first ex-president going back into the White House as a First Spouse, or second fiddle), it's still intriguingly uncertain what his role in a Hillary Clinton administration would look like. So what are the new rules for a First Gentleman?

Bill won't be "constitutionally required to be perfect", as Betty Ford was told to be (we're all too well aware of his foibles for that). Nor will he be "elected by one", as opposed to the nation, as Laura Bush always said she was. Much as his newly svelte figure will be admired, the First Gentleman's changing hairstyles and choice of designers won't be international incidents, as Michelle Obama's have been.

However, one thing's for sure: Bill does bear a startling resemblance to Lady Bird Johnson's description of what the perfect First Lady should be half a century ago: "A showman and a salesman, a clotheshorse and a publicity sounding board, with a good heart, and a real interest in the folks."

"Because he's a man, and a former president, the rule books are going to be completely rewritten," says Kate Andersen Brower, author of the New York Times bestseller, First Women.

Unlike former First Women - expected, like Hillary and Michelle Obama, to put their high-powered careers on hold - this First Gentleman wouldn't be devoting a micro-second, let alone his daily life, to picking out china, approving dinner menus or supervising floral arrangements. Since Hillary may be a little busy, it has been suggested that many of those duties will be handed over to Chelsea Clinton. "Certainly Bill will be exempt from all that," Brower goes on.

"And since Clinton's friends can't imagine him having an office in the East Wing, where the First Lady has traditionally worked, his office will likely be in the Eisenhower Executive Building, where vice presidents have an office, or even in the West Wing."

An ability to smooth over his other half's abrasive edges is one of Bill's First Lady-like talents, but such is his charisma that he will need to be given a substantial role of his own in order to prevent him from overshadowing his "co-president". Although Hillary has said that she would put her husband "in charge of revitalising the economy", Maney thinks it more likely that he will go to the United Nations. "He once told Madeleine Albright that the UN position was second only to the presidency as the office he most coveted," says the author. "And that way, he'd give Hillary breathing space but still be a major player."

In this single respect, Clinton would not be breaking new ground: his wife famously antagonised White House staff at the start of her husband's administration by becoming the first First Lady to set up shop in the West Wing. But Bill's enduring position as the most popular US politician of all time is likely to allow him a little leeway. Back in the day, Hillary's involvement in a variety of policy issues (rather than the charitable causes her predecessors were traditionally limited to) was rued by many, but it seems that voters would want as much Bill as they could get under a Hillary presidency.

"No president has had a more charismatic spouse than Bill in their armoury of surrogates," explains media mogul Tina Brown. "The Big Dog will be envoyed into trouble spots as her advance charm offensive." No doubt to great effect. And Patrick Maney, author of Bill Clinton: New Gilded Age President, seconds this: "Unquestionably, Bill will have a major influence, whether he exerts it in public or behind the scenes. And why not? A president needs all the help he (or she) can get. George W Bush might have been a better president if his father hadn't been so reticent to offer advice."

With Donald Trump potentially gone, Clinton will be the biggest entertainer in town: a major player and, perhaps, a slight liability? After all, nobody would want the first Mr First Lady in US history - a man who is the caveat in every generalisation and exception to every rule - to turn into Eleanor Roosevelt. "And the fact that he will for sure cause a little trouble himself," chuckles Tina Brown, "will only make it more interesting."

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