Dear Bill Clinton: Yes, first lady is a weird job. Here's why you'd be great at it

By Amy Argetsinger, Krissah Thompson comment

Someone needs to be the first male first lady, Bill - and no one better than you. Photo / the Washington Post
Someone needs to be the first male first lady, Bill - and no one better than you. Photo / the Washington Post

Dear Bill,

It's okay, we can talk: You know that we know that you know that, more likely than not, you'll be moving back into your '90s homestead in a couple months.

Once again, you'll be waving to the crowds on Pennsylvania Avenue, biting your lip alongside a chief justice, slow-dancing in some drafty ballroom . . . but with the spotlight shifted just a few inches from its old centre.

Because this time, you'll be the first lady. Yes, you. And it's important that you own it.

A male first lady! The first "first gentleman"! We know this concept makes some people a little uncomfortable - it's been the awkward giggle underlying talk of a theoretical female president for decades. Eight years ago, a major magazine thought it was cool to run a doctored cover photo of you in Jackie Kennedy drag under the words: Bill Clinton, First Lady. We'll probably be seeing more of that kind of thing soon.

And already, we've noticed, Team Hillary is attempting to reassure the public that, well, of course he's not going to do lady-ish things. There's buzz about Chelsea playing the "hostess" role in her mother's White House; in a December debate, the candidate herself declared that she'd hang on to duties like picking the china for state dinners.

Listen to us, Bill: You have to be the hostess. You have to pick out the china. It's your turn. We need to get this male milestone over and done with, perhaps even more than we need a first female president. Someone needs to be the first male first lady. And no man in history has ever been better suited to the singular demands of this weird job than you.

To review, here are the kinds of things first ladies do:

They flack soft nonpartisan causes, like literacy or conservation. You went on the road with your former rival, George H.W. Bush, to raise funds for tsunami and hurricane relief, and did an excellent job with that. Aside from all the political trouble it's caused your spouse, the Clinton Foundation has raised money for worthy causes, such as fighting climate change and promoting equal opportunity for women and girls. Hey! Those sound like worthy causes for a first gent.

They serve as role models for wholesome living. Michelle Obama may have lifted weights and touted a healthy diet, but, frankly, she came into the spotlight looking pretty svelte already. You, on the other hand, grappled publicly with a health crisis that prompted you to change your lifestyle habits - and you not only dropped the weight but also kept it off. You know how this is done. We read the AARP the Magazine piece revealing why you became a vegan and were impressed by the roasted-cauliflower-and-tomato dish you showed off to a reporter. Now, we want to see you down in the dirt of Michelle's White House Kitchen Garden, planting kale with giddy schoolchildren.

With all due respect to Chelsea, the outward-facing charm offensive just isn't her thing

They host White House dinners and holiday parties. With all due respect to Chelsea, the outward-facing charm offensive just isn't her thing. And would it even be fair to ask her to entertain the Senate spouses while also raising two small children and wrestling with this Clinton Foundation octopus you've bequeathed to her? Plus, asking your daughter to take on the job reeks of gendered stereotypes. "When you really break it down - what is inherently feminine about announcing the White House Christmas decor scheme?" asks Carl Sferrazza Anthony, a historian who studies first ladies. What indeed, Bill?

They empathise. They console. They relate. They feel other people's pain. You got that.

They humanise their partner. Look, we know this part of the job has only got more busy and bizarre. It's not enough to pose for Vogue or share your favourite inspirational books with People once every four years or so. Now, thanks to Michelle, a first lady is expected to dance on the Ellen DeGeneres show or play charades with Jimmy Fallon. Impossible? Ahem. Who played sax on The Arsenio Hall Show? Who went on MTV to banter about boxers vs briefs?

The pop-culture schmooze was your game from the start - we're just going to need you to take it up a notch. We'll want to know who designed your suits and ties, and for you to make a statement with them. Hosting a state dinner for India? Find the up-and-coming menswear designer with Indian heritage. Speaking of symbolism, we've got no problem with Family Circle de-gendering their first-lady cookie contest into one celebrating recipes from candidates' families - but we would have loved to have seen your favourite vegan cookie represented. Meanwhile, remember that in all these interviews, you need to keep the focus on the commander in chief. Never let us forget the reality of a household in which your spouse has the more important job.

Bill, back in the spotlight, just a couple inches from its own centre this time, on stage at the Democratic National Convention. Photo / the Washington Post
Bill, back in the spotlight, just a couple inches from its own centre this time, on stage at the Democratic National Convention. Photo / the Washington Post

They pick out the china. The fact that you've never picked out china before in your life does not trouble us in the least. The learning curve is not steep, and has there ever been a learning curve you haven't thrown yourself at? You're the ultimate know-it-all, the quick study, the voracious learner.

In early 2001, we were there in the press pool when you visited the National Zoo for a first look at the new pandas. After a short visit with the zookeepers, you walked out and lectured us on the fine points of the panda digestive system, their bamboo-stripping technique and the cooling system for their enclosure as confidently as Jack Hanna. Mark our words: By the midterms, you'll be writing a book about White House china.

According to our historian friend Anthony, Chester Arthur, Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson all entered the White House as widowers. And you know what they did? They picked out their own china.

It's always been hard for female glass-ceiling shatterers, but let's not forget about the men

Mostly, the job of first lady means always being on display. It's a task, or punishment, that's been handled with aplomb by some women who did not exactly crave the spotlight - bookish Laura, privacy-loving Michelle. Whereas you've always reminded us of Alice Roosevelt Longworth's old saying about the man who "wants to be the bride at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral, the baby at every christening." (She was speaking, of course, of her father, Teddy Roosevelt. He probably would have been a great first lady, too.)

Plus: If not you, then who? Ultimately, it's just not fair to kick the can down the road and force the next first gent - almost certainly someone who lacks your public profile and room-devouring charisma - to be the one who has to figure out how to do this.

It's always been hard for female glass-ceiling shatterers, but let's not forget about the men. The first generation of male nurses had to face down cruel jokes and find an appropriate uniform, a way to talk about their jobs, a way to be. A similar dynamic is going on with the vanguard of stay-at-home dads. What's made it easier for all of them going forward is strength in numbers, and the role modelling of those who preceded them.

So here's your chance to be a trailblazer, not only for the guys who will follow you in this job, but also for all men trying to figure out how best to support their spouses. You'll be an example for little boys everywhere. Goodness knows little girls have already had plenty of lessons on how to stand by their man.

Sincerely,

Amy Argetsinger and Krissah Thompson

- Washington Post

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