The position of presidential spouse hasn’t evolved terribly much over the years, something that’s indicative of the way American society treats and thinks about its female population. The position’s definition and responsibilities could change forever if a third Clinton term in the White House comes to pass this November, making Bill Clinton the first male presidential spouse—and the first ex-president to return to the White House. It’s yet another layer in the ever-evolving, long and winding road of America’s most storied and powerful political couple.
Throughout all of their skillful wheelings and dealings over the decades, the Clintons have proved themselves masters of playing the political game above all else—and whether you love or loathe them, their ability to adapt and persevere is impressive. Those skills would be intriguingly put to the test with the question of how to best utilize former President Clinton in his new role.
What would we call Bill’s new position? Hillary has stated her affinity for the title of “first dude” —most likely after conferring with a team of Millennials lead by Lena Dunham who confirmed for her that youngsters do, in fact, still use the term “dude”—and Bill himself has suggested the super-weird-unless-you’re-in-Ireland “first laddie” moniker.
Although former President Clinton will surely respect the boundaries of office, it’s hard to imagine his staying relegated to a non-partisan issue similar to the kind past first spouses have undertaken like children’s literacy that all can agree upon. But even if he takes on more policy than any first spouse since his wife, one can see the value of a man of Clinton’s stature hosting the occasional tea at the White House, and hopefully it could help shine a light on how colossally out of date a lot of these gender “norms” really are.
Hillary has said that she’ll still be setting the flowers and choosing the dinnerware, but a former White House florist recently told Politico that Hillary used to seem to be counting down the minutes before she could be done picking out flower arrangements and get on with her day. And it’s not too difficult to see the intelligent, highly ambitious and politically-minded former FLOTUS being a tad bored with flower arrangements and the like—both then and now.
It’s been mentioned that Chelsea could perhaps help execute some of the more traditional First Lady duties—not because she’s a woman mind you—but because she’s the only other available Clinton, and has proven herself a graceful and articulate person who is to be respected time and again. Another option would be someone appointed by the Clintons to a new position—Secretary of Cutlery perhaps? (Possible appointee: Martha Stewart)
Will Bill work out of the East Wing, where the FLOTUS usually resides? Pretty doubtful. Hillary herself eschewed tradition (not for the first or the last time) and worked from the West Wing so she could focus more on policy issues, like her helming of Bill’s failed healthcare law. Will he pose for pictures with the spouses of visiting dignitaries and world leaders while his wife discusses policy nearby in a private room? One thing is for certain; if Bill does, in fact, take an office in the West Wing, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be criticized for taking up valuable space like his wife was back during his term (I wonder how those people feel now?).
Bill has also shown himself more capable of showing emotion naturally and appearing more sympathetic than his wife, and is known for his ability to endear himself to strangers, something that could help soften Hillary’s image at key moments throughout her hypothetical presidency. Another important first spousal duty is that of consoler in the wake of tragedy, something Bill should exceed at, both on a personal and national level.
The main strength former President Clinton also brings to the table is that his last 16 years spent as a popular ex-president making the humanitarian rounds—and doing so across party lines—that experience will come in very handy as first dude/gentleman/spouse. For her part, Hillary has said that she might put Bill in charge of revitalizing the economy, a herculean task that would forever alter what the role of first spouse means if she does in fact make that his charge.
When Bill was in office, some people bristled at his famous claims that with the Clintons you had a “buy one, get one free” deal, as they were uncertain how much influence they wanted a non-elected official having over policy. On this third Clinton run to the White House, it’s hard to see the same line of thought garnering a similarly negative reaction.
No matter your opinion of the Clintons, it’s fun to imagine say, German chancellor Angela Merkel coming to the White House and being warmly greeted by Bill who leads her to the oval office. Once they arrive at the door with Bill in full-on jovial Slick Willy schmoozing mode, Hillary looks up from her work and says with a slightly satisfied smile, “We’ll take it from here, could you be sure and shut the door on your way out please? Thanks, honey.”
Or, we could have a Trump presidency where the women’s rights progress we’ve made over the last few decades is erased, and there will be little “fun” to be had regarding antiquated gender norms.
However these questions are resolved, if the Clintons return to the White House, it will be intriguing to see how this most unique of presidential couples continues the evolution of their shared power.