No Precedent for 'First Gentleman'

05/06/2015 07:52 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2016

While watching the television interview with Bill Clinton the other night, I began thinking about the practical problems of how to treat him if his wife becomes president. I have to admit, Bill did drop one offhand line about his future -- something about what he'd do if he were "called to public service again" -- which sounded rather suspiciously (to my ear, at any rate) like: "Perhaps Hillary will put me in her cabinet, who knows?" I have to admit a snatch of the song "How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?" from The Sound Of Music also flitted through my head. But then, Bill Clinton is known to have strange effects on your outlook, at times.

Kidding aside, it did start me seriously thinking not only about what Bill's role might be in a Hillary Clinton administration, but also about the unprecedented nature of the problem. We've never faced this problem as a nation, and not just on one single level, either. Like all things Clinton, it's complicated. The line that became the soundbite from the interview, after all, was Bill talking about continuing to give high-priced speeches if Hillary wins, and his "gotta pay our bills" attempt at making light of the situation. As I said, multiple levels of this situation to consider, all of them unprecedented.

Traditionally and historically, First Ladies were nothing more than official presidential hostesses for formal events. There's even one woman who is considered to be a First Lady who wasn't actually the president's wife (Harriet Lane, niece of the only bachelor president, James Buchanan). That's all pretty much ancient history, though, since the role was fundamentally transformed by perhaps the greatest First Lady of all time, Eleanor Roosevelt. She showed that the power of the presidential spouse can reach far beyond giving a good dinner party. She made a difference in the lives of many Americans, and was revered as highly as her husband (if not more so, in some quarters), precisely because she was so hands-on.

Since that time, First Ladies who are so inclined (not all of them are) choose one or two "pet projects" and become spokeswomen for a cause. Betty Ford quite admirably championed the causes of fighting breast cancer and drug addiction. She also spoke out in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment, although that is not as well remembered today. Nancy Reagan was on the forefront of the War On Drugs, and is best remembered for the "Just Say No!" campaign. Hillary Clinton has already made her mark in this respect, leading the (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to achieve comprehensive health care reform. Laura Bush championed literacy, and Michelle Obama is known for her efforts on both healthy food for kids and wounded veterans.

All First Ladies, though, have essentially put their own careers (where they previously existed, of course) on hold when their spouse entered the White House. Hillary Clinton didn't actively continue being a lawyer during the years Bill was president, for example. But we've simply never been faced with a spouse of a president going on to become president in their own right. There are no precedents.

Modern ex-presidents -- again, those who are so inclined -- have gone on to do good works for society. If they're not so inclined, they retreat into a world of golf (Gerald Ford), painting (George W. Bush) or cashing in on their fame (Ronald Reagan, and others). Ronald Reagan, though few remember it now, cashed in to the tune of $2 million immediately after leaving office by giving a few speeches in Japan, and continued to rake in big bucks on the speaking circuit until he physically became unable to do so.

Bill Clinton is kind of in a class by himself. While the greatest ex-president in modern times is unarguably Jimmy Carter (when measured by good works done after leaving office), who became the symbol of a charity which built homes for poor people, Habitat For Humanity. But -- importantly -- he didn't create this charity, he just eagerly jumped on board the good works they were already doing. Bill Clinton decided to follow Carter's model of doing good works globally, but to do so he set up his own foundation (originally the "William J. Clinton Foundation," then the "Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation," now just known as the "Clinton Foundation"). He also, of course, followed the route Reagan had taken, and he regularly cashes in big time on the speaking circuit by giving very expensive speeches to well-heeled groups.

If Hillary Clinton wins office, he'll become "First Gentleman" Bill Clinton. Again, this is unprecedented on two levels: an ex-president being the spouse of a new president, and the first "First Gentleman" in history. The gender issue won't be a big deal, of course, although the press may have a bunch of fun coming up with an alternate title for Bill than "First Gentleman" (my guess is that "First Bubba" will become the favorite, but that's just a wild guess). Still, the novelty of a woman president will be a lot bigger than the novelty of a male "first" spouse, so what to call Bill isn't going to be all that huge a problem.

However, what Bill will actually be doing while Hillary is in the Oval Office is open to more interesting speculation. Bill, unlike all other first spouses, knows the White House and how it runs. He spent eight years there, after all, in the big chair. The only First Lady who even comes close to this base of knowledge would be the second time Frances Folsom Cleveland became First Lady (since her husband served two non-consecutive terms). Clinton is already hinting that maybe, just maybe, his wife might give him a real job in her administration, which is indeed an interesting concept to contemplate.

Would Hillary Clinton give her husband a job? What job would she give him? There would, of course, be howls of "nepotism," but it's hard to make that charge stick when Bill Clinton is obviously more qualified than most to hold any White House job she could choose for him. Nepotism usually means giving an undeserving or underqualified relative a plum position, in other words. Republicans are going to howl at both Clintons anyway, so this would just add another reason to their list.

It is actually kind of fun to speculate what job Bill Clinton could do in Hillary's administration. He could become secretary of either the departments of Housing and Urban Development, or perhaps Health and Human Services -- both would be good tie-ins to the work the Clinton Foundation is already doing. She could even give Bill the spot she vacated: Secretary of State (although I'm personally kind of skeptical of the chances of that happening). Perhaps ambassador to the United Nations, though? I could see that possibility.

The most interesting job Hillary could give Bill would be to name him her chief of staff. That would truly be the "co-president" concept that the Clintons have always spoken of. As everyone who has ever watched The West Wing (or any other Washington political drama) knows, the chief of staff is the ultimate "gatekeeper" in Washington. He or she has the power of access to the president -- anyone wanting time in the Oval Office has to get the chief of staff's permission first. Would Hillary trust Bill with that much power? It's a fascinating question to consider.

If Hillary does win, Bill will be sailing in uncharted waters, that's the only thing that is sure. But, somehow, I don't think he's going to get away with making money on the speaking circuit while his wife's in office. He may have bills to pay, but he's going to have to put them on hold for a few years, that's my guess. The quote "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion" will become a favorite of the pundits, that's almost guaranteed.

The bigger question is what he's going to do with his eponymous foundation. If Jimmy Carter's wife had been elected president in the 1980s, he could have just stopped working for Habitat For Humanity for the duration of her term. But this is the Clinton's own foundation, after all. Will Hillary and Bill turn the reins of control over to Chelsea? Would that make the conflict of interest disappear, or would it just lessen it by one remove (Chelsea, after all, would still be the daughter of the sitting president).

There's really only one completely acceptable answer to this unprecedented problem, and that would be to turn the entire foundation over to some sort of "blind trust" (headed by a few trustees of the Clintons' choice). If they both divorced themselves completely from the foundation's workings until they were both private citizens again, it would completely preclude any influence-peddling charges by Clinton opponents. The foundation could continue doing good works in the Clinton name, but without any ties whatsoever to either of the Clintons themselves (or even Chelsea).

Of course, this just returns us to the problem of what to do with Bill for four (or eight) years. Bill Clinton would unquestionably be an invaluable asset to Hillary as she transitions into her new job, especially (to give but one example) when it came time to deal with individual members of Congress. At the very least, Bill should be considered for some sort of senior adviser role (whether an official position or in a version of the "kitchen cabinet"), since he's got eight years of experience in the workings of a presidency.

One thing is for sure, though, and that is that "First Gentleman" Bill Clinton is not going to be content with just being the perfect host for formal dinners.


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