Now that Hillary Clinton is officially the Democratic candidate for the president of the United States, former president Bill Clinton is the closest that anyone has ever been to becoming the first gentleman (or first husband, if you prefer).
It remains to be seen what he’ll make of that role. The presidential spouse is free to decide how to spend the years in the White House, and history is full of first ladies who have managed to leave a great mark on the world while their husbands were presidents—from Eleanor Roosevelt to Jacqueline Kennedy to, yes, Hillary Clinton, who worked on important healthcare policy during her husband’s tenure.
If elected in November, Hillary Clinton has expressed a desire for Bill to be involved with policy, just as she was when he was president, alongside the traditional presidential spouse duties—which include diplomatic elements and the domestic duties of running the White House.
But publications including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have cited Clinton family confidantes saying that Bill Clinton may get a pass on much of the drudgery of ceremonial housekeeping—and that the responsibility for choosing cutlery and curtains may fall to the couple’s 36-year-old daughter, Chelsea Clinton.
“People close to the Clintons said they could see Ms. Clinton, should her mother be elected, taking on some of the roles traditionally reserved for the first lady, such as organizing holiday parties and selecting menus for state dinners,” the Journal reports.
Chelsea Clinton, who does not appear to have commented publicly on this speculation, is a public health expert with experience in investment banking and in a leadership role at her father’s foundation. She holds degrees from Stanford, Oxford, and Columbia universities. She is also mother to a toddler and a 5-week-old baby. Still, Clinton associates say she won’t mind taking on some of the functions of a traditional first wife. “I do think she will chip in to help her father and mother with managing life in the White House,” a family friend and former chief of staff to Bill Clinton, Thomas F. McLarty III, told the New York Times. He added, however, “I don’t see her playing White House social secretary.”
It’s a complicated message to send. Why can’t Bill Clinton perform these tasks himself, as Hillary did during his time as president? Presumably, because he is a man. Apparently, while it was fine for his overachieving wife to put her energies to tree trimming, such activities are seen as beneath him.
It’s possible, of course, that the task of managing the White House’s domestic functions is just too large for Bill Clinton to handle alone. After all, at 70, Clinton is not young. If his wife is elected, he will be the oldest presidential spouse in history.
As for Chelsea Clinton, one might wonder whether, had she been a son rather than a daughter, she would be expected to help out in this way. In any case, her mother should not ask her to do so. For all the groundbreaking work Hillary Clinton has done to advance women in public life, she should not let her husband’s lack of interest in china (of the crockery kind) send such backward message.