If Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton wins the U.S. presidency, her husband Bill Clinton would fill the role traditionally held by women first ladies.
How would this role be different for Bill Clinton, especially since he served as the 42nd president of the United States?
First ‘gentleman’ would be a first in American politics
“There are no precedents,” said Allan Litchman, professor of history at American University in Washington, D.C. “But certainly he should not be called the first lady. He should be called the first gentleman, of course.”
Bill Clinton has not publicly discussed his possible role as first gentleman. He has said that if Hillary Clinton is elected, he will resign from the board of the not-for-profit Clinton Foundation. Hillary Clinton has repeatedly said that as president, she would surely include him in her administration.
Hillary Clinton was clear about this question during a campaign stop earlier this year in the southern state of Kentucky. “My husband, who I’m going to put in charge of revitalizing the economy, because you know he knows how to do it.”
More recently, she was asked about her husband’s possible role during an interview on the CBS News show 60 Minutes. “I will be the president. But it does happen to be a historical fact that my husband served as president for eight years,” she said. “And there’s a lot that happened which helped the American people during those eight years. I want an economy that creates more jobs.”
Dr. Anthony J. Eksterowicz is an honorary professor of political science at James Madison University. He says the first lady’s office has become much more professional over the years and is now also closely linked to the office of the president. He would expect this to continue if Bill Clinton took over as first gentleman.
“I look for even greater professionalization of staff under his management. Probably more staff, more hierarchical organization and much, much higher integration with the White House office and his office.”
Eksterowicz said he has no doubt that Hillary Clinton would use Bill in a much greater political role than most first ladies.
“She’d be crazy not to, given his experience. He knows all the global leaders, he is conversant in domestic policy, and he’s conversant in all policy issues. So he’s an enormous resource and she has to use him and she will use him.”
In the United States, a first lady traditionally does not draw a lot of attention, while supporting her husband. Most take up non-political causes to publicize across America.
One example is Michelle Obama, wife of President Barack Obama. She has led a campaign to reduce child obesity and promote healthy eating. Most Americans can support such a non-political policy.
Role of first lady has changed over time
Hillary Clinton was one of the most politically active first ladies in history. She pushed for one of her husband’s main political goals – to bring health insurance to all Americans. But she faced strong opposition and the administration’s health reform effort failed in the end.
Another first lady who had political influence was Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the 32nd U.S. president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. She told the nation in 1933 that Americans should not expect their new first lady to be “a symbol of elegance.” Instead, she said they would be getting a "plain, ordinary Mrs. Roosevelt.”
During her service, Eleanor Roosevelt became the first first lady to hold her own press conferences. She also traveled the country visiting relief projects and examining work and living conditions. She campaigned for the rights of the poor and minorities. But she also found time for her official White House entertaining duties.
Eksterowicz said he thinks the next most influential first lady in terms of policy was Rosalynn Carter, wife of the 39th U.S. president, Jimmy Carter.
“This is a woman who sat in on cabinet meetings, Camp David negotiations, served as a presidential ambassador during a Latin American trip, lobbied and testified before Congress.”
He noted that Carter expanded her role by creating a new position of chief of staff and integrating her office with the White House office.
Some first ladies have also had influence in a less public way. One was Nancy Reagan, wife of the 40th U.S. president, Ronald Reagan. Nancy had a “powerful” impact from behind the scenes, according to Eksterowicz.
“I would say a very, very strong, influential behind-the-scenes partner, particularly with respect to foreign affairs and establishing relationships with the Russians.”
Nancy Reagan was also known to give her husband advice on his public image and which people to choose for top staff positions.
Bill Clinton’s role could also raise the issue of whether presidential spouses should be paid. Currently they receive no salary. Eksterowicz said the case in favor of pay would be stronger if Bill Clinton was given specific tasks from the president.
He also noted that Hillary and Bill Clinton both have strong, activist personalities. He said there is a very real possibility that Bill Clinton could overshadow his wife in certain actions.
Professor Litchman agrees. “Whether he (Clinton) can keep himself under control is the bigger and much more interesting question.”
If Trump is elected, wife Melania would not be first foreign-born first lady
If Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump wins, he has said he thinks his wife Melania would be an “unbelievable” first lady.
"Melania is a very beautiful woman both inside and out. She has got a tremendous heart. She feels so strongly about the women's health issues. In fact, she knows how strongly I feel about that, and she's always pushing me on women's health issues.”
Melania Trump is a former model who was born in the east European republic of Slovenia. She would not be the only first lady born outside of the United States. It happened once before in 1825. That was the year the sixth U.S. president, John Quincy Adams, took office.
A U.S. diplomat, John Quincy Adams met his future wife Louisa in London when she was 19 years old, according to the White House website. The two married three years later, but she did not arrive in the United States until 1801.
Melania Trump has not specifically talked about her possible role as first lady. But she said in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper that she often gives her husband her opinions on issues.
“I give him my opinions, many, many times. I’m my own person, I tell him what I think. I’m standing very strong on the ground on my two feet and I’m my own person. And I think that’s very important in the relationship.”
Eksterowicz said it is hard to say how involved Melania would be in a Trump administration because the pair has no history as a political couple.
“When I look at Melania Trump, I see a very, very steep learning curve. There’s virtually no experience in terms of Washington, politics, policy, it’s just not there. So she’s going to have to learn virtually everything.”
I’m Bryan Lynn.
Words in This Story
role – n. the part someone has in a job, activity or performance
revitalize – v. make something more active or exciting
obesity – n. a condition of having by too much fat in the body
hierarchical – adj. system of organizing people or things based on importance
integration – n. the combination of two or more things
conversant – adj. being familiar with or having knowledge or
elegance – n. being graceful and stylish
ordinary – adj. common, not special or unusual
tremendous –adj. very good, excellent
overshadow – v. make someone or something less important or successful
learning curve – n. how fast or slowly someone can learn a new skill or activity