© 2020 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

If Hillary Clinton Wins, Bill Would Be A Powerful First Gentleman

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

If Hillary Clinton becomes president, she would return to the White House after a 16-year absence. And so would her husband, Bill Clinton. He would be the first male spouse of a president. He'd also be the first former president to become, for lack of a better term, first gentleman. NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Bill Clinton is a popular ex-president, and his wife clearly considers him an asset to her campaign. So much so that in addition to deploying him on the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton happily indulges in speculation about what life would be like for Bill Clinton in a potential second tour at the White House. Here she is on late night TV talking to Jimmy Kimmel.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE!")

HILLARY CLINTON: Part of what we'll have to figure out is what do you call the male spouse of a female president? Now, it's a little bit more complicated with him because people still call former presidents Mr. President.

JIMMY KIMMEL: Right.

H. CLINTON: So I have to really work on this.

KIMMEL: I know what you should call it. The first president lady would be a nice thing to call him. The first lady doesn't...

H. CLINTON: ...The first dude, first mate, first gentleman. I'm just not sure about it.

LIASSON: Campaigning in Iowa back in January, Bill Clinton said he was looking forward to making history this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CLINTON: I want to talk about one barrier that has not been broken. I want you to support Hillary for me, too, because I want to break a ceiling. I am tired of the stranglehold that women have had on the job of presidential spouse.

LIASSON: Carl Sferrazza Anthony is a historian with the National First Ladies' Library. He says despite the groundbreaking nature of Bill Clinton's possible new role, the former president has already created a model for himself.

CARL SFERRAZZA ANTHONY: It's actually going to unfold into a role that's not too dissimilar from the one he's been playing for 16 years as a former president. Presidential spouses - by and large, during the time they're in the White House they tend to avoid or rise above partisan-related issues. And that's exactly what former presidents do. And that's what Bill Clinton has done.

LIASSON: Through his foundation and through his partnership and charitable efforts with former President George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton has been involved in earthquake relief, international AIDS prevention, and small-scale agriculture. Any one of those would make a decent template for a first spouse's focus. And, says Anthony, even though a male person as first spouse would be unprecedented, the fact that he's been in the White House before could make his new role not so big a change after all.

ANTHONY: Him having been president will make a transition for the country into having the first male presidential spouse much easier and much more familiar. I don't think anyone will blink when they see Bill Clinton in a tuxedo and Hillary Clinton in an evening gown on the steps of the North Portico welcoming heads of state.

LIASSON: And speaking of formal dinners, Hillary Clinton has been clear she'll still be picking the place settings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

H. CLINTON: With respect to my own husband, I am probably still going to pick the flowers and the china for state dinners and stuff like that. But I will certainly turn to him as prior presidents have for special missions, for advice.

LIASSON: For the most part, Bill Clinton has been an asset on the campaign trail this year, sometimes making a stronger case for Hillary Clinton than she can make for herself. For her part, Hillary Clinton sees the prospect of Bill Clinton back in the White House as a selling point, although sometimes she can get carried away. Here she is campaigning in Kentucky.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

H. CLINTON: My husband, who I'm going to put in charge of revitalizing the economy because, you know, he knows how to do it. And...

(APPLAUSE)

H. CLINTON: ...Especially in places like coal country and inner cities and other parts of our country that have really been left out.

LIASSON: Making Bill Clinton a special emissary to coal country or the inner city is one thing. But as former first lady Hillary Clinton learned the hard way, first spouses should never be put solely in charge of anything. When he ran for the first time in 1992, Bill Clinton used to boast that voters would be getting two for the price of one, a declaration that became problematic for the Clintons. Now the idea of two-for-one is back. Bill Clinton as first spouse would be one half of a powerful team. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.