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The First: Female President, Male First Lady, Former President in the White House

Contemplating Clinton II.

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Photo-illustration by Dienststelle 75  

It all starts, if you think about it, on Inauguration Day. Would Bill Clinton hold the Bible for his wife? It’d be a lovely tableau, but fraught with ambiguous symbolism—is this another twofer? A passing of the torch? An unfortunate reminder she wouldn’t be there without him? (None of these ideas is something the first female president of the United States would want to communicate to all posterity.) The questions would continue with the festivities: How are the two Clintons introduced? As the Former and Mrs. President Clinton? Mr. and Mrs. Presidents Clinton? President Clinton and Mr. Clinton?

Ask Hillary’s staff, and they’ll tell you they haven’t gotten around to thinking about questions of pageantry and protocol, though one aide admits they’re already trying to determine whether she’d be Mrs. or Madam President, which is complicated enough. But every Washington insider eventually wonders aloud about these niceties. And, vastly more important, what he would do all day. Presumably, Bill Clinton would not kick off the White House Easter-egg roll. He wouldn’t obsess over Christmas-tree decorations. The only traditional First Lady responsibility one could really envision him embracing would be the state dinners—not the menus themselves (unless the chef could be persuaded to do cheeseburgers, or takeout Chinese) but the hosting part, the part that involves schmoozing and storytelling and the subtle diplomacy of the seating chart. “Maybe the press won’t cover what’s on the menu, finally,” says a former Clinton-administration official. “It’ll be more like what the actual discussions were at the dinner tables.”

By now, we’ve come to expect experiments in political androgyny from the Clintons. From the moment they first set foot in the White House in 1993, they provided a precedent-setting example of upside-down gender politics in public life. While the traditional role of First Lady was to soften and humanize the commander-in-chief, he came across as the more empathetic one, biting his ample lower lip and uttering without irony how he could feel others’ pain; she, meanwhile, insisted on an office in the West Wing, spearheaded a major policy initiative, and set about winning friends and influencing people with all the subtlety of a Sherman tank. She even wore pantsuits. (In fact, she attended her best friend’s wedding in a tux.)

Today, Hillary is taking this experiment to its extreme and logical conclusion, by attempting to become the first female president of the United States. And Bill, in this equation, will be ... well, what, exactly? On Oprah, Clinton joked that his Scottish friends say he should be called “First Laddie.” But that’s just the point: This future office he’d hold, the title he’d have, this historic role he may well play and idiosyncratic function he may well serve—none of it, for now, has a name, or a precedent. If Hillary is elected, he will be by far the more experienced party in the White House. Yet he will not be the decision-maker. So what would a Clinton restoration involve? Would it be (to use the standard political formulation) change? Or more of the same? Some Democrats are fervently hoping for Bill II—but given that this time he’s in a supporting role, they are likely to be surprised by what they get.

‘Thank you for your support for Hillary,” says Bill Clinton as he bounds to the center of a huge platform at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines. It’s a warm July day, but one senses the crowd would have been enormous even if it had been cold and pouring rain. “I want to thank all of you who are here,” he says, “and all of you who have signs, but there’s one guy back in the back over there that represents the group I belong to...” Deadpan pause. “It says HUSBANDS FOR HILLARY.” He points to the man, encouraging him to step forward. “There he is! Thank you very much!”

The crowd goes berserk. Even his outfit, a polo shirt of blinding banana yellow, manages to outshine her blouse of rosy pink.

It’s an old rule of vaudeville: Never follow the animal act. On the campaign trail, it’s Bill Clinton. No matter how you label him, he’s still the headliner. For Hillary’s staff, titrating proper doses of him is tricky. He’s what the Greeks called a pharmacon, both a medicine and a poison. (Al Gore struggled with this issue, too, unsuccessfully, and he didn’t even have to worry about Clinton following him back to the White House.) Yet Hillary has discovered there are times when nothing short of an appearance by her husband will do. He joined her in Selma, Alabama, on the day that she and Barack Obama gave competing civil-rights speeches, with the obvious hope of mutely reminding the crowd that Toni Morrison already called him “the first black president.” After a memo leaked from one of her advisers suggesting she skip the caucuses in Iowa, Bill was at her side in the state for a multicity swing. And he’s been spending a lot of time with Hillary lately in New Hampshire, still the most important early primary state. Over Labor Day weekend, at the Hopkinton State Fair, he gave an impromptu disquisition on pumpkin-growing. “It’s basically seeds plus soil plus care,” he reportedly told the crowd. “That’s what watermelon is, too.”


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