It’s 2015, and we’re back in uncharted territory, testing historic gender boundaries by pondering what it would mean to have a woman in the Oval Office — and her husband in the East Wing.
With Hillary Rodham Clinton officially running for president and Carly Fiorina intimating that she may enter the Republican presidential race, there is the distinct possibility that the nation could soon have a first gentleman in the White House.
What would the first man to take over the job historically held by first ladies do with it? The issues that Bill Clinton or Fiorina’s husband, Frank, would probably contend with are not without precedent: They are being actively worked out on the state level among the administrations and households of the nation’s six female governors.
Andy Moffit, the first gentleman of Rhode Island, is the latest to join the small fraternity. His wife, Gina Raimondo, was elected to lead their small state last year, and Moffit, who works full-time for the consultancy giant McKinsey & Co., is still trying to figure out his unofficial role with the state.
He says he has no sage advice for Bill Clinton or any other man who might be headed to the spouse’s wing of the White House.
“One part of no one having ever thought about it is there are no specific expectations,” Moffit said. “It’s kind of liberating.”
First gentleman is a position in flux. When Raimondo — the first female governor in the state’s history — took office in January, Moffit wasn’t immediately sure what his title would be. Even with the steady ascension of women to governorships, there have been only 25 elected female governors in U.S. history, according to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. The first was Nellie Tayloe Ross, a widowed first lady who won the race for governor of Wyoming in 1924 after her husband died in office. She had no first gent.
The six current first gentlemen, who have few historical models, are in the Northeast, South, Southwest and Northwest. There are three Republicans and three Democrats. Their backgrounds are varied — some remain focused on their own careers, others have retired. Some have taken on spheres of influence traditionally occupied by first ladies, while others have kept a relatively low public profile.
The role of political spouse is malleable, and men are still finding their place on the state level, said Anita McBride, who directs programs on the legacies of first ladies through American University. “It adjusts with the changes going on in the country,” said McBride, former chief of staff for Laura Bush. “It’s not a static position. It’s been reflective of what’s going on with society.”
The current roster of first gentlemen includes Chuck Franco, husband of New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) and a retired law enforcement officer who spends his time painting and tending to the private residence he and Martinez own. There is also Tom Hassan, principal of Phillips Exeter Academy and husband of New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan (D); Michael Haley, who served in the South Carolina National Guard and is married to that state’s Gov. Nikki Haley (R); Wade Christensen, an attorney in Oklahoma whose wife, Mary Fallin (R), is governor there; and Dan Little, a U.S. Forest Service data expert in Oregon married to Gov. Kate Brown (D).
Hassan, Christensen and Haley are involved with preservation of their governor’s mansions — a task traditionally taken on by first ladies. And Christensen created a first gent cookbook, “Getting Grilled by Wade Christensen,” to raise funds for a local nonprofit group. For the cover photo, Christensen donned an apron and hoisted a platter of ribs and chicken. It’s the macho version of the cookie recipes that candidates’ wives have been expected to have in their portfolios for decades.
But the roles of first gent and first lady will probably never be quite equivalent.
When men serve as first gentleman, they don’t “come to it with the same expectation of being a wife and mother,” said Dee Dee Myers, who was White House press secretary during the first two years of the Clinton administration, when Hillary Clinton challenged the notion of a first lady’s proper place by establishing an office in the West Wing. “Those expectations would not be foisted upon him.”
Say the words “first lady,” and certain images leap to mind: the hostess, the family caretaker — or, if she’s the ambitious type, the power behind the throne, pushing her spouse to greater heights.
And yet she still must feign interest in baking cookies. Since 1992, the wives of the Democratic and Republican nominees for president have dutifully submitted recipes to Family Circle’s Presidential Cookie Bake-Off. Michelle Obama, a self-proclaimed bad cook, won the contest in 2012.
“If you look at political spouses, you are looking at what is used to mean to be a wife. . . . A lot of stuff that we get attached to first ladies is there because it was attached to the economic and social circumstances of marriage,” said Rebecca Traister, senior editor at the New Republic whose book “Big Girls Don’t Cry” explored the female dynamic of the 2008 presidential race. “The woman was the domestic figure. The man was the professional and economic figure.”
“First gentleman” conjures no such imagery for most. They are tabula rasa.
When Hillary Clinton started a campaign for president in 2007, New York magazine used its cover to imagine Bill as first husband by doctoring a photo of him in a red dress and Lady Bird Johnson-style coiffure.
Bill Clinton recently told TV host Rachael Ray that he would be happy to “be called ‘Adam’ ” — in reference to that other first man. During Hillary’s first White House run, he told Oprah Winfrey that he had been taking recommendations on monikers.
“My Scottish friends say I should be called ‘first laddie’ because it’s the closest thing to ‘first lady,’ ” he said. “I’m not so worried about what I’m called as what I’m called upon to do.”
New Hampshire’s Tom Hassan, who will retire from his demanding career as a prep-school educator this summer, is the only first gentleman on the spouses’ leadership committee of the National Governors’ Association. From the women in the group he hears concerns about “protocol and [what] china to use, and that’s probably not in my circle of worry.”
Still, Hassan said he wants “to be there for Maggie in this role. It’s an issue that we all wrestle with. We want to be there supporting our spouses, and many of us have careers, too.”
As first gent, Hassan has visited every one of the state’s 10 counties to greet voters and praise community service organizations. He and his wife also make sure their schedulers — hers from the governor’s office, his from the school — are in close communication.
“It is a balancing act to make sure that we are there for each other,” Tom Hassan said. “People understand in the state that I’ve got this job that takes up oodles of time.”
As it turns out, this vanguard of first gentlemen do have some role models in this regard — the recent generation of first ladies.
An increasing number of political wives have already contended with the decision to dial back careers as their husbands pursue higher office. Michelle Obama, her family’s primary breadwinner for years, left her job as a hospital vice president to help her husband campaign and keep watch over their daughters. Heidi Cruz, wife of presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R), stepped off her own career track in politics to move to Texas so her husband could run for office.
Hassan’s decision to leave Phillips Exeter will give him more time to support his wife and to be involved with the care of their 26-year-old son Ben, who is disabled.
It’s a new emphasis on family life that many men are choosing as marriage norms have changed in the past 30 years. And it is also proof that first gents aren’t exempt from the reality of a household in which their spouse has the more important job.
There can be a tug-of-war between a desire to be an equal partner and the pull to be an alpha male, said Dan Mulhern, husband of former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm (D). He confessed that his ideas about manhood were challenged when his wife became governor, and that he had to figure out where he fit.
In 2011, he wrote an open letter to his son, published in Newsweek, reflecting on his feelings after Granholm’s election. “I always thought that I would become governor, and then I’d ‘be the man,’ ” he wrote. “But the train tracks got switched, and instead Mom pulled into that station. I came to wonder about my strength.”
Mulhern, who was a business consultant, planned to keep working but soon realized that his client list would be rife with conflicts of interest, since his wife’s office influenced policies for many of them.
He spoke with Paula Blanchard, his predecessor as gubernatorial spouse, and she told Mulhern that his primary job would be as an emotional support to his wife.
“There’s nobody else she could talk to in an absolutely unvarnished, unfiltered way and show irritation, disappointment and concern,” Mulhern said.
But he was disappointed not to find more of a chance to influence policy. “I had an honest assessment of my own male ego, and I knew it was not going to be a very important role,” said Mulhern, who recalled being at a dinner with his wife where the guest seated next to him treated him like a potted plant.
As first gent, he chaired a mentorship program and ran a leadership development program through the governor’s office to evaluate managers in state government and help them focus on the administration’s core values. He also read to children and participated in walks and runs for charity.
“I did get roped into working on the governor’s mansion and rehabbing it, which I hated,” Mulhern said. “It had asbestos, mercury, lead and black mold. The windows leaked buckets.”
He was also the primary caregiver for their three children, who were all living at home during Granholm’s time in office.
Mulhern took the lessons from his experience and became a kind of unofficial guru to future first gentlemen. Soon after Andy Moffit stepped into the role in Rhode Island, Mulhern sent him a note to welcome him to the club and offer advice to Moffit, who has young children.
“The incredible thing is you’re going to have a relationship with your kids that’s going to be there for the rest of your life,” Mulhern told Moffit.
Moffit said he has appreciated all of the advice. At 8:30 on a recent morning, he rounded the corner in his kitchen with his 10-year-old daughter, Ceci, at his side. They packed her lunch of marinara and pasta, then dug into her math homework. Curled up on the couch nearby, Gov. Raimondo read “Nate the Great and the Pillowcase” with their 8-year-old son, Tommy.
It was the typical tightly scheduled dance of a busy power couple. In passing, Moffit and Raimondo quickly got themselves oriented for the day before rushing out of the door.
“Love you,” she said.
“Love you,” he said.
“Bye,” she said, before heading off to the State House in an SUV driven by a state trooper.
“His role is a lot of support of the family and of me,” Raimondo said later. “He’s had to be extra-present in that. I hope people will see us as a team more than anything.”
Moffit packed Ceci and Tommy into the family’s old sedan and drove the kids to school, waving at the crossing guard, before returning to his home office.
After making calls for McKinsey, Moffit prepped for his first official event as governor’s spouse. That afternoon, he was met at an elegant cafe by a group of reporters and tourism industry officials to hear him talk up the Rhode Island food scene.
As Moffit walked to the podium, one of the industry folks whispered to another: “What’s he known as?”
The first gentleman is still making himself known.