New Ground

Bill Clinton Could Be the Best First Lady Ever

Hillary won’t be the only one breaking new ground if she gets back into the White House. Here comes first gentleman Bill Clinton.

Finally! “Madame President Hillary Rodham Clinton cordially invites you to The White House”—this is what the Hillary camp with today’s launch of her campaign envisions. A Hillary Clinton presidency will shatter the glass ceiling so many of our grandmothers, mothers, sisters and friends have hit. But if the former First Lady, two-term New York senator and secretary of state takes her experience inside government and on the campaign trail all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, she won’t be the only Clinton to break new ground.

If Hillary Clinton wins, it will be a surprise if the First Gentleman and former President William Jefferson Clinton sets a fashion trend or spends his time playing host, picking out china patterns, or reviewing state dinner menus. The co-presidency pitched in 1992 may finally arrive, but with her at the helm, not him. Now they both could hold the honors of being our nation’s president and first spouse. They both will have had each other’s jobs. How about the advice they can give each other? Imagine the briefing on Inauguration Day. Think about the White House operator who gets a call for President Clinton and has to sheepishly ask, “Which one? Current or former?”

The Office of the First Lady began as a uniquely American institution. The term was initially used to describe the “first” lady, Martha Washington. Following Lady Washington, first spouses chose titles at their discretion, but the coinage only really caught on after a 1911 play about Dolley Madison titled The First Lady in the Land. By the 1930s it had become the norm.

The role of the first lady has continually been transformed. Madison elevated the station though her dedication to orphans and women. She risked her life to protect American artifacts as the War of 1812 left Washington burning. Edith Wilson’s detractors called her “Presidentress” after her husband, President Woodrow Wilson, suffered a stroke and she took over her husband’s schedule.

Eleanor Roosevelt, an admired model for Secretary Clinton, transformed the office as a popular columnist, radio show host, U.N. Commission for Human Rights chairwoman, and public proxy for her paralyzed husband.

All of the ladies who followed in Ambassador Roosevelt’s wake chose a cause and tweaked the role, including becoming a prominent presence on the campaign trail.

The Kennedys credited Lady Bird Johnson with winning them the Lone Star State. Jackie Kennedy, a reluctant icon whose beauty was unparalleled, set fashion trends that persist today. (“Madmen,” pillbox hat, Chanel suits, anyone?) Nancy Reagan had her “Just Say No [to drugs]” campaign, and both Barbara and Laura Bush championed literacy. Michelle Obama, a lawyer with degrees from Harvard Law and Princeton, has been lauded for her support of military families and programs against childhood obesity.

Since Eleanor Roosevelt, no other first lady has transformed the office more than Hillary Rodham Clinton, who turned it into a persevering power pantsuit of policy. Though she had her critics—especially from the Gingrich Republican-led Congress—she overcame their jabs and from her East Wing office launched a successful New York Senate campaign. This led to her becoming a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 and then secretary of state.

Her husband, by virtue of being a popular former president, stands to change the Office of First Lady even more. First, there will be a new title, in addition to the presidential prefix held for life. Who will former President Clinton model his own time as the “First Spouse/Gentleman”? Washington, Madison, Wilson, Roosevelt, Lady Bird, Jackie, Nancy, Michelle, or his own wife, Hillary? Maybe a combination of all of them? Or what about other “first dudes” around the world? Maybe there’s a model for the mega power couple there?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is arguably the most powerful woman in the world. Her husband, Joachim Sauer, is a reclusive quantum theoretical chemistry professor, who watched his wife’s inauguration from “a TV in the lab.” Smart but not exactly someone Bill could emulate or relate to, though he did a brief stint as a professor at the University of Arkansas way back.

Australia elected Julia Gillard their 27th prime minister. Her partner, Tim Mathieson, was a hair salon owner and took on an unpaid role with charities. Got himself grilled for recommending a certain sized woman for a prostrate exam. Can’t really see Bill doing an everyday job or discussing medical procedures. Also the Office of the First Lady has its own paid staff. So no help from down under.

Maybe Argentina? It has a woman president and—get this—her husband was president before her. Right before her. Cristina Kirchner was married to Néstor Kirchner before his death in 2010. Néstor served as president from 2003 to 2007, and before that, he was a governor. Sounds familiar. Then he became Argentina’s first gentleman when Cristina was elected in 2007. She was re-elected in 2011. High notes of former President Néstor Kirchner’s time as first gentlemen include being elected national deputy for Buenos Aires Province, negotiating to release hostages, participating in a government conflict with the agricultural sector, and serving as secretary general of the Union of South American Nations representing the entire continent. Now that’s more like it. Of course, he was a Peronist (dictatorial, polarizing, unpopular) who became friends with Hugo Chavez. OK, maybe not so much a model.

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So, the Clintons will do what they do best. Re-invent. Change. The Office of the First Lady/First Gentleman will be changed forever. No one can argue the presidency isn’t a hard, busy job. Why not get some help from your mate? Especially if your partner happens to be a popular former president with what has been called one of the best political minds around.

With Bill back in the White House, if not the Oval Office, the country may see a first gentleman at the direction of Madame President advising on domestic and foreign policy, barnstorming key districts after the State of the Union, quelling Middle East diplomatic tensions and mediating on behalf of various party agendas. He could do this while stopping by his alma mater, Georgetown, to give a lecture or two while continuing to work on his family’s foundation.

It’s unlikely future first spouses, following in the pioneering shoes of the former president, would not be given the same liberty as Bill to blaze their own paths—and may God help any conservative relic who argues otherwise. President Bill Clinton may be the most interesting, powerful person to occupy the Office of the First, er, Lady since, well, Hillary Clinton. And he might be the best thing to ever happen to the office.