Editor’s Note: For an alternative viewpoint, please see: Counterpoint: Bill Clinton Should Hit the Road for Criminal Justice Reform
It was never going to be easy for the husband of the first woman president to take on the role of “First Gentleman” — or whatever becomes the moniker for the male version of First Lady.
Yet the idea of Bill Clinton, a former U.S. president, assuming this secondary role makes the task even more complicated. Mr. Clinton has never easily faded into the background, and, it’s difficult to imagine him just embracing a feel-good cause such as nutrition or literacy (the focuses for Michelle Obama and Laura Bush) and watching his wife adoringly from the sidelines.
Yet if Hillary Clinton is elected president in November, then Mr. Clinton should do his best to embrace the role of First Gentleman in the model of the traditional First Lady.
There can be no sense that America is getting two presidents, rather than one. The first female president can’t be seen as relying in a special way on the expertise of her husband; she needs to be seen clearly as standing on her own two feet and to be indisputably the leader of the Free World.
This surely won’t come naturally to Bill Clinton, who thrives on the spotlight and must hunger to regain the attention that came with the presidency. But in a way, having the first First Gentleman be a former president could help in creating a role model for future men whose wives serve as president.
If there is a lingering awkwardness about any husband whose wife is more successful professionally than he is, then this could have been an issue for the first First Gentleman. His manliness might have seemed threatened, and he might have seemed diminished in what has traditionally been a ceremonial, even decorative, position.
This won’t be an issue for Bill. He’s had his turn in the Oval Office. No one can question his own achievements. And, in fact, his wife’s potential success will add to his legacy: Bill Clinton may also go down in history for having played an integral role in encouraging Hillary’s success and helping bring about the historic moment of finally electing a woman into the presidency, a culmination of a century-long quest for women’s equality.
Given these stakes, it will also be especially important for Mr. Clinton, who is notorious for betraying his wife, most infamously with a White House intern while he was president, to appear publicly as entirely supportive of his wife. The last thing a President Hillary Clinton will need when she is grappling with our faltering economy, skyrocketing Obamacare health insurance costs, and international threats from ISIS to Iran, is to be rocked by another personal scandal from her philandering husband.
Bill Clinton owes it to his wife to do everything possible not to distract from or diminish her authority; that means affairs must be an absolute no-no for as long as she is president.
Bill Clinton should be thinking carefully about a cause he can embrace if his wife becomes president. It should be something that follows the model of other First Spouses — something fairly apolitical, but that speaks to an important societal need and that is largely embraced by both the Left and the Right.
While Mrs. Obama has received blowback from what many see as advancing an overbearing federal push to dictate what kids eat for lunch, her cause — children’s nutrition — was a good example of the type of cause a First Spouse should embrace.
Discouraging drug use, helping children learn to read, improving treatment for mental illness — these are worthy causes that most people can agree are a good use of the First Spouse’s time, without stirring up political controversy. It’s notable that Hillary Clinton is probably not the model that her husband ought to follow, if he wants to serve her interests, since she mishandled her cause of health care reform and created numerous political headaches, contributing to her husband’s rocky first term.
If Bill Clinton becomes the first First Gentleman, he should take his job seriously. His actions will create an important precedent for future First Gentlemen who are sure to come after him. And that starts with recognizing that his most important job is to support his wife, and not upstage her.