Emhoff — first male spouse and first Jew in the quartet of American presidents, vice presidents and their spouses — gets to define a role that was merely another era’s awkward possibility but now seems much less unusual in a nation where gender roles aren’t so fixed anymore.
Geraldine Ferraro’s husband, John Zaccaro, could have been the trailblazer when his wife became the first woman on a major party’s presidential ticket as Democrat Walter Mondale’s 1984 running mate. And more recently there was that tantalizing chance that a former president, Bill Clinton, might have been the first gentleman to his wife, the Democrat’s failed 2016 presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.
But it’s the 56-year-old Emhoff who is going where Zaccaro and Clinton could not.
Emhoff rides a wave of vagueness into his position at the side of his wife. He and his staff have been rigorously imprecise about plans for his official duties.
He’s left a curious capital with only teensy hints about what’s to come. During a campaign fundraising appearance with comedian David Letterman, Emhoff alerted his lawyer friends in the audience to expect a call from him seeking their assistance with efforts to “help people get access to legal services.” He also made some oblique references to helping his wife, the president and first lady bring together a country racked by “so much pain.”
Making history has come with professional sacrifices for Emhoff, who until recently was a high-powered Los Angeles attorney. As some fretted about potential conflicts of interest, Emhoff announced that he’d be leaving his law partnership at DLA Piper, a massive firm with a lobbying portfolio that surely would have created appearance problems.
But in Washington, the prominent can almost always find a soft landing, and Emhoff has secured himself a palatable, seemingly controversy-free job teaching entertainment law at the Georgetown University Law Center.
“I’ve long wanted to teach and serve the next generation of young lawyers,” Emhoff said when the appointment was announced in mid-December. “I couldn’t be more excited.”
Though new to the glare of national politics, Emhoff quickly grasped the art of settling on an origin story and then setting it on repeat. His version goes like this: Born in Brooklyn. Raised in New Jersey. Happy memories of Jewish summer camp, where he won some athletic awards. Moved to suburban Los Angeles when he was in high school because his father got a new job. Bar mitzvah in a corny suit.
Emhoff, who declined to be interviewed for this story, graduated from Cal State Northridge, whose reputation is miles behind the prestige factories of the big University of California system schools. Aaron Jacoby, a former law partner of Emhoff’s, says his friend’s second-tier undergraduate degree may have inspired him to overachieve when he stepped it up several notches by getting his law degree from the University of Southern California and later beginning his legal career with an overriding urge to prove himself.
After law school, Emhoff made the obligatory stop at a large firm but eventually formed his own practice with Jacoby and another attorney in a quirky former entertainment company building they found in Beverly Hills — a fancy residential Zip code, but removed from the locus of Los Angeles legal swagger in the glass towers of Century City.
Jacoby and Emhoff had met in a Lamaze class when their first wives were pregnant, and they saw each other through divorces. While Jacoby was going through his breakup, he says, Emhoff demonstrated a radar for detecting when he was lonely and needed to be taken to dinner.
Their firm quickly boomed. In the years to come, Emhoff straddled a line — rising star, but never too showy. An avid golfer with a handicap in the teens, according to friends, Emhoff joined Hillcrest, a historically Jewish country club formed when others rarely admitted Jews.
It wasn’t one of the fanciest in their image-conscious world, “but fancy enough,” Jacoby said.
(Emhoff was mum when asked for this article whether he has joined one of the many golf and country clubs in the Washington area, where the capital’s political, lobbying and corporate elite commune in relative privacy.)
At his Los Angeles law firm, Emhoff was the convener, the rainmaker, the organized one, the one who saw the future. He persuaded Jacoby to overcome his reluctance to fold into a large firm, Venable, where he was able to scale their practice and supersize the firm’s West Coast presence. Later, DLA Piper lured him to do the same.
Building teams was Emhoff’s forte, says Alex Weingarten, his partner at Venable. When they worked on cases together, they’d good-cop, bad-cop the opposing side. Emhoff was always the good cop.
While at Venable, he was set up on a blind date with Harris, who was California’s attorney general. Their origin story is finely honed, too, laid out in Harris’s 2019 memoir, “The Truths We Hold.” Emhoff texted her from a Los Angeles Lakers game. He left her a long, rambling voice mail by way of introduction; it was awkward, but she found it endearing. She flew down to Los Angeles for their first date. Early the next morning, Emhoff sent her an email: “I’m too old to play games, or hide the ball. I really like you and I want to see if we can make this work.”
The budding relationship was sotto voce.
I’ve met someone but “can’t say anything about her,” Emhoff would say. Jacoby guessed it was a starlet.
Harris, who had attended a Pentecostal church as a child, and Emhoff had a small wedding — her first, his second — in Santa Barbara in 2014. The ceremony included Jewish traditions such as the breaking of a glass.
Defying cliche, Harris and Emhoff’s first wife — Los Angeles film producer Kerstin Emhoff — have become good friends. It has helped that Harris clicked with Emhoff’s children from his first marriage: Cole, who was named for jazz legend John Coltrane; and Ella, named for Ella Fitzgerald.
“We sometimes joke that our modern family is almost too functional,” Harris wrote in her memoir.
An improved husband
In 2017, the chummy threesome — Emhoff, his ex-wife and his wife of three years, then a freshly minted U.S. senator from California — settled in at a restaurant table at the Hotel NoMad.
Harris, now the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, launched into a story that evening about how she had recently awakened to hear Doug Emhoff drop a surprise announcement: They were going on a trip. He’d planned everything.
Kerstin Emhoff nearly spit out her wine, she recalled in an interview. This was not the driven attorney with whom she had spent more than two decades, a man whose idea of a good time was spending hours on a golf course, endlessly watching sports on TV or attending pro basketball games.
“I’m so much better than I was before,” he said.
Gobsmacked, his ex-wife smiled, and turned to Harris.
“I don’t know what you’ve done to this man,” she said. “But it’s great.”
Outside the most insidery of California political types, Emhoff was once a relative unknown.
But with his wife seeking national office, he became a thing. A 2019 video of Emhoff dancing in a convertible with Harris, who was then running for the Democratic presidential nomination, at the San Francisco Pride Parade went viral. In a tweet, Emhoff repurposed the video into a jokey fundraising pitch, cracking about making “dad moves with my dad bod.”
Since then, Emhoff — a man of medium height with a receding, graying hairline, a relaxed manner and a far-from-imposing presence — has become such a hit for posting candid moments from the campaign and puppy-love images of him and Harris that he’s spawned a hashtag: #Doughive, a play on Beyoncé fans’ BeyHive. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), who has campaigned with Emhoff, called the unassuming lawyer an election year “sensation.”
That notoriety has given Emhoff a loud voice on matters of public policy and behavior. In late December, he posted a photograph of himself wearing a mask for his 750,000-plus Twitter followers with the message, “Wear a mask.”
In acronym-obsessed Washington, Emhoff presents a challenge. There’s POTUS (president of the United States), VPOTUS (vice president of the United States) and FLOTUS (first lady of the United States). Regardless of whether Emhoff gets his very own acronym, the media has mainly settled on a title for him: Second Gentleman. (That one will be hard to condense. SGOTUS doesn’t have much of a ring to it.)
His cohorts on the campaign didn’t need to struggle for something to call him. He was referred to as a mensch so many times that it might as well have been on his business cards.
“Obviously there’s a tremendous amount of nachas to have one of our own in that role,” says Weingarten, the former Emhoff law partner who is a prominent leader in the Los Angeles Jewish community, invoking a Yiddish word for pride.
Emhoff’s path to a perch as the second gentleman has stirred curiosity among some in the Jewish community.
“They ask me if he really is Jewish — whatever that means,” said Jacoby, Emhoff’s former partner. “And you say: ‘There’s a whole list of things. He is pro-Israel. They did break a glass at their wedding.’ All these things they want to know that are proving his level of Jewishness. It’s kind of funny.”
Friends say Emhoff is not a member of a temple and describe him as a less-than-observant Jew who nonetheless identifies deeply with Judaism and has been shaped by its values. On a trip last year to Michigan, he went to Temple Israel in West Bloomfield with Marseille Allen, a local activist. When Allen told him that she’d recently converted to Judaism, the low-key Emhoff surprised her by throwing up his hands.
“Welcome to the tribe!” he said.
Political spouses seldom cause a ripple, but sometimes they can be a liability. Ferraro’s husband, John Zaccaro, a real estate investor, caused a controversy when he initially refused to release his financial information and his practices as a landlord were criticized.
Emhoff presented a more complex set of questions. Over the years, alongside the boilerplate corporate and real estate work, he has sometimes represented heavily regulated companies or firms that might be frowned upon on the left.
He represented Merck in cases involving allegations that the drug Fosamax caused bone disease, an entanglement that could cause appearance problems given Democrats’ criticism of the drug industry. Even more touchy, his clients have included Abbott Laboratories in an OxyContin fraud case and the arms dealer Dolarian Capital in a dispute related to a contract to transfer weapons from Romania to the Afghan military.
The cases that have gotten the most attention lately, though, have been the quirkiest. He succeeded in shielding an advertising agency from paying a massive judgment in a case involving the origins of the Chihuahua featured in Taco Bell advertisements. And he has represented Jukin Media, a California company, in copyright infringement lawsuits related to a viral video of the “Pizza Rat” dragging a big slice in a New York subway, and others with titles such as “2nd story beer pong dunk fail.”
Emhoff initially took a leave of absence from his law firm during the campaign. During the transition he announced he’d depart from the firm completely before Inauguration Day.
Even if he could have figured out a way to build a firewall between his legal work and the lobbying and government work of his firm, DLA Piper, it’s likely that real or perceived conflicts of interest would have been alleged by his wife’s political opponents.
The closest parallel for Emhoff may be Marilyn Quayle, the wife of President George H.W. Bush’s vice president, Dan Quayle. She made inquiries about resuming her legal career when her husband took office, but her plans fizzled amid conflict-of-interest sniping and reluctance within firms to open themselves to undue scrutiny.
“She gave up everything for her husband,” said Christian Josi, a longtime Quayle adviser and confidant. “My take is she was never entirely happy about it. But she sucked it up for the country and her husband.”
For Emhoff, joining the faculty at Georgetown, where he will be a “Distinguished Visitor from Practice” and teach a two-credit course in entertainment law, has become his workaround.
“Doug is one of the nation’s leading intellectual property and business litigators, and he has a strong commitment to social justice,” William M. Treanor, dean of the law school, said in a statement announcing Emhoff’s teaching job. “I know our students will greatly benefit from his experience and insight, and I am eagerly looking forward to his arrival.”
Emhoff declined through a spokesperson to reveal how much he will be paid, whether he solicited the job, was recommended by someone or recruited, or whether his wife played a role in his appointment. A Georgetown spokeswoman declined to answer the same questions.
There have been signs that Emhoff will take steps to avoid deflecting the spotlight from the biggest marquee name in his marriage.
When Harris received the Moderna coronavirus vaccine at a public event on Dec. 29, Emhoff received the shot too, but outside the view of that day’s pool reporter. Later he tweeted a photograph of himself getting the injection in his left arm with Harris standing over his right shoulder.
“Today @KamalaHarris and I received the COVID-19 vaccine. It was quick, easy — and safe! Grateful to our nurse Patricia and all the frontline workers saving lives across the country. We each have a role to play to keep ourselves and our communities safe.”
At other appearances, he’s exuded that same unscripted, self-effacing amiability that connected him with voters during the campaign.
“I learned to cook a few things” during the pandemic, he said during an appearance with his wife in early January.
Right on cue, Harris, a cooking enthusiast who often shares kitchen tips, quipped that he “set off the fire alarms a few times.” He’s had to learn “a few things over and over again,” she said.
He might not have been the perfect fill-in for his family’s home life. But at least he was trying.
And that, it’s certain, goes a long way to explaining why the people who loved Kamala have come to love Doug.
Not long ago, Emhoff participated in a virtual forum with PL+US, a group that advocates for paid family and caregiver leave, said Katie Bethell, the group’s founder and executive director. The group’s virtual events usually draw a few hundred attendees. When Emhoff appeared, they got 60,000.
“I’m doing what I always do: supporting Kamala, being there for her, loving her,” Emhoff told the audience, “and giving her whatever support she needs.”
Afterward Bethell says a girlfriend of hers sent a text message.
It read: “I want a Doug.”