There have been married women heads of state, whose male spouses walked a step behind. And there was even once a president-dictator in Argentina whose wife was more popular than he. India saw a daughter of a prime minister rise to power. But there has never been anything quite like Bill Clinton. There has never been a man who ran the most powerful nation on earth whose wife, only a few years later, did the same thing, with him, still living, standing at her side.
As in the case of the election of Barack Obama, the first African-American president, to understand what it means to have Bill Clinton as “first man,” one has to go outside of presidential history, even outside of American history, to find adequate comparisons.
What will his duties be? What laws will bind him? What ethical limits will restrain him?
There are questions about his finances. The Clinton Foundation has amassed a multi-billion-dollar war chest. The money can be passed onto other charities and be used to do good things, but it can also be spent on administration and travel and Clinton-centric programs. For example, it can be used to hire family and friends and allies.
There are stories that during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, major donors benefited from policy decisions. Gilbert Chougary, a Nigerian billionaire who owned luxurious hotel properties in that country, gave $1.5 million to the Clinton Foundation. And during her entire tenure as secretary of state, Clinton refused to name Boko Haram as a terrorist organization. Urging from the Pentagon, the CIA and the White House went on deaf ears. Even al-Qaida condemned Boko Haram. But it took a new secretary of state, John Kerry, to finally call the group terrorists. Would American policies be for sale in a Clinton White House? And would Bill Clinton be the worldwide salesman?
First ladies give speeches and accept donations to favorite charities in return. Would that apply to first man? Will Bill Clinton be able to continue his lucrative speaking career? Will he speak for a company that donates heavily to his presidential library or to his foundation?
Can he write a book? First ladies have done so, why not a first man? And how much of a cash advance can a friendly publishing company, owned by a friendly Wall Street conglomerate, wanting and needing government favors, legitimately offer him?
Then there are the awkward questions about his personal life. A few years ago, a best-selling book detailed Bill Clinton’s ongoing relationships with young ladies outside of his marriage. Imagine for a moment if Jacqueline Kennedy or Nancy Reagan were promiscuous and took lovers during their White House years? Even given a Clinton sympathetic media, and the assurances that such liaisons would be kept private, what problems would such an arrangement pose for national security? How would the intelligence community be able to parse the needs of the nation with the necessity of their own political survival with Hillary Clinton as their boss?
Then, there is the question of geography. Where will Bill Clinton live? Will he live in the White House? Which room? First lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was often estranged from her husband, had her own rooms. Her close friend and sometime companion, Lorena Hickock, had her own room as well. Will any of Bill’s friends be allowed sleepovers? Will he meet friends and business associates at the White House?
Will he be able to take a prospective donor to dinner at the White House Mess? Or let them catch a ride back to Washington or New York on Air Force One?
Will he have an entire suite of offices in the East Wing, just as a first lady would? Or will he have a suite of offices tucked away in the Old Executive Office Building? Either option will provoke questions. If he lives separately from his wife, it will very clearly indicate what critics have long maintained, a marriage of convenience. But if he runs his business from the White House, when does it cease to be his business and become blatant abuse of power?
There is some indication daughter Chelsea Clinton will assume the more traditional role of first lady. This is not a wholly unreasonable idea. Many daughters and daughters-in-law have assumed such a role for the president, especially in the early years of American history. But this, too, creates its own set of questions, for Chelsea Clinton is married as well. Where would her “first man” live? He is a banker for Goldman Sachs. Would he operate out of the White House as well, or take a leave of absence from the bank that runs America?
Hillary Clinton has said that she wants her husband to play a role in her administration. At one point on the campaign trail she said she would put him in charge of creating jobs. Would he sit in on Cabinet meetings? First lady Rosalynn Carter did.
Bill Clinton is 70 years old. It is possible that he might die during eight years of Hillary Clinton in office. If so, it would be a massive funeral, a truly unique moment in American history. But what if the reverse happened? Many questions were raised about Hillary’s 2012 fall, concussion and hospitalization. What if she should become incapacitated? It happened to Woodrow Wilson, and his new wife, the first lady, became his doorkeeper and nurse. When critics complained that she was running the country she protested that she was doing no such thing; she was merely determining who the president would see and what he would read and sign. Would Bill Clinton become the doorkeeper for an incapacitated Hillary?
It is likely that President Hillary Clinton and her team will do everything within their power to diminish her husband’s role. She will have to be seen as a leader in her own right and not the reincarnation of her husband’s presidency. And that would call for Bill Clinton to be seen and not heard. But it is not his personality. When Angela Merkel was inaugurated as the first female chancellor of Germany, the whole world was watching, but her husband, Joachim Sauer, did not even attend. Bill Clinton will not be an American version of Dennis Thatcher, husband of U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. And he will not be an American version of Joachim Sauer. If Hillary Clinton is elected president, Bill Clinton will be there.