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Doug Emhoff playing an age-old role with a new twist

Emhoff is a much-traveled ambassador for VP Harris, the highest-ranking woman of color in U.S. history

Doug Emhoff, husband of Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), spoke at a drive-in rally on Sept. 26 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Video: Joe Biden/YouTube)
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The moment that introduced Doug Emhoff to many Americans lasted just 24 seconds. When an animal-rights activist dashed onstage and wrenched a microphone from the hand of his startled wife, Kamala D. Harris, at a 2019 campaign event, Emhoff hurtled onstage, joining a tangle of security guards to wrestle the protester away.

Two years and one vice-presidential inauguration later, Emhoff is the first man to be second spouse, and no longer first in line to respond to physical threats against Harris. But during a groundbreaking if uneven first year for his wife, Emhoff is playing a role for Harris that is just as critical, if less obvious.

He visited rural Utah, clad in jeans and a polo shirt, to praise national parks. He traveled to Wisconsin with first lady Jill Biden to meet with victims of the Christmas parade tragedy. He toured cultural sites in Paris while Harris was meeting with French leaders. He stopped by his native New Jersey to tout coronavirus vaccines.

In some ways, it’s a highly traditional role for a political spouse, reaching out to constituencies that may be harder for Harris to engage, with a soft touch that takes off the political edge. From Laura Bush to Nancy Reagan to Jill Biden, political spouses often adopt a nonthreatening aura that can charm even their partner’s adversaries.

But Emhoff, of course, is also different. He is the White male spouse of the first woman of color to reach such a prominent position in American politics. Her allies say he serves as a sort of emissary to an array of groups, including those who may, whether they admit it or not, feel unease about women of color in positions of power.

“I have heard him express very clearly that he sees part of his role as showing the world the beauty and the power and the wisdom of his partner,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous, who led the White House Passover Seder in March, which included remarks from Emhoff. “That was what he was doing on the campaign trail, and I think that’s been a big part of what he’s been doing since this administration took office.”

She added: “This culture that we live in monsterizes powerful women. And so to have someone this relatable, this character who’s just bringing out her humanity, is really critical.”

White House officials, who declined to speak on the record or to make Harris or Emhoff available for this article, said the second gentleman’s official role is to diligently support the aims of the administration. He represented the United States at the Paralympics in Tokyo and accompanied Harris on her official trip to France. But mostly, he has crisscrossed the country encouraging people to get vaccinated, taking nearly three dozen trips in all.

As the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president, Emhoff also serves as ambassador to a constituency that Democrats and the Biden administration continue to cultivate, taking part in Passover and Hanukkah celebrations at the White House, visiting synagogues and affixing a mezuza — a small ornate case containing a religious text — to the door frame of the vice president’s mansion.

All the while, the self-described “second dude” gives off the aura of a man who is genuinely surprised to be where he is, a neophyte to the choreography of politics who is having the time of his life. But those close to Emhoff say his role is more serious and tactical than it looks, helping Harris manage a volley of attacks that may be unprecedented.

Other vice presidents, like Dan Quayle, also faced criticism, but Harris’s pioneering role has attracted particular scrutiny. She has been criticized for struggling to address the tasks President Biden has assigned her, from immigration to voting rights. Turmoil among her staff has raised questions about whether she is ready to step in as Biden’s heir apparent.

Her allies, while acknowledging missteps, say racism and sexism undergird at least some of the criticism. But the White House sees little advantage in complaining about that publicly.

“Imagine being married to her and she is being attacked, analyzed, criticized for her physique, her demeanor, her laugh, everything, and you’re not supposed to say anything publicly about it,” said Connie Schultz, the wife of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who was vetted as a potential vice-presidential pick for Hillary Clinton.

“Imagine having to keep all that to yourself — and worse, trying to keep helping her to not pay attention to it,” Schultz said. “I suspect if he had the freedom to tell you, he would say exactly that. He supports Joe Biden of course, but his number one concern and focus is his wife.”

The Kamala-Doug story has been well-publicized over the years, given her role as California’s attorney general and U.S. senator. He was a single father of two and a high-powered entertainment attorney. She was a barrier-breaking attorney general of California with national ambitions.

After a blind date in 2013, Emhoff laid his cards on the table. “I’m too old to play games or hide the ball,” he said the next morning in an email that included his schedule for the next few weeks. “I really like you, and I want to see if we can make this work.”

A year later they were married in Santa Barbara. Harris’s younger sister and longtime political adviser, Maya, officiated.

Despite the pressures and politics of their positions, observers describe a couple who seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company in a city where marital handholds, kisses and sleeping arrangements are picked apart for subtle signs of expediency.

In public comments and among White House staffers, Emhoff has leaned into the role of supportive spouse and even feminist icon.

“I realize now men need to step up,” he said during a “Gender Equality Listening Session” in Paris during Harris’s visit to France last month. “They need to step up and be part of the solution and not continue to be part of the problem. And I’m going to do everything I can in this role to try to keep messaging and to just keep saying men need to support women — period, end of story.”

The Harris-Emhoff pairing, in some quarters, also epitomizes where much of the country is headed. Their relationship is both interracial and interfaith. (She is Black and Indian American, identifies as Baptist but was raised with Hindu traditions.) They are a blended family — he is the father of two adult children who call Harris “Momala.” She is one of the most visible people in the world, and he shelved a career at an international law firm that made him a millionaire.

Inside Emhoff’s left arm, often hidden beneath the sleeve of a well-fitted suit, Emhoff has a trio of tattoos. Two are the initials of his son and daughter, Cole and Ella. The other is an image of a dragon, because the Chinese Zodiac identifies 1964 — the year both Harris and Emhoff were born — as the Year of the Dragon.

When Harris became Biden’s running mate, Emhoff took a leave of absence from the law firm DLA Piper, since its roster of clients with government interests would make his role there a potential conflict. After the election, Emhoff began teaching a class at Georgetown Law.

Although he seems unlikely to suffer — professionally or otherwise — from accommodating his wife’s position, the coverage of his role as a supportive spouse has often been laudatory, even gushing.

But Emhoff is also performing pragmatic political tasks in support of Harris’s political aspirations, including as an emissary to the Jewish community.

In March, he played a large role in a virtual Passover Seder hosted by the White House, which was open to anyone with a working Internet connection. And several weeks ago, Harris, Emhoff and the Bidens marked Hanukkah in the East Room. The candle-lighting is a longtime White House tradition, but this time it was also a “family” celebration, Biden told those in attendance.

“To think that today, I am here before you as the first Jewish spouse of an American president or vice president, celebrating Hanukkah in the people’s house — it’s humbling,” Emhoff said. “And it’s not lost on me that I stand before you all on behalf of all the Jewish families in our country.”

The outreach has been more than symbolic, several Jewish leaders said. In November, Emhoff talked to the Jewish Democratic Council of America for an hour about foreign and domestic policy, said Halie Soifer, CEO of the organization.

“It’s clear that he is going to continue to grow in this role and continue to serve as a link between the administration and the Jewish community,” Soifer said. “There is overwhelming support in this community for this administration. And that is not solely because it includes the first Jewish second gentleman, but he does help to connect to why it is that we as Jews are supporting this administration, because he talks about it in very personal terms of his own Jewish values.”

Soifer echoed a familiar refrain about Emhoff: that he appears unscripted in a city full of disciplined, calculating figures. His wife is among those who have been accused at times of relying too heavily on talking points.

Emhoff has become something of an expert at using his image as a happy-to-be-here outsider to advantage.

In speeches and public statements, he stresses how new he is to the political world, saying that he is still adjusting to its choreography and pomp. Jill Biden, by contrast, who has helped Emhoff acclimate to his role, has been married to the president for 44 years — and he has been a politician for all of them.

In 2019, a video captured Emhoff dancing awkwardly while riding in a convertible with Harris during that year’s Pride parade in San Francisco.

The video was ultimately repurposed for a fundraising pitch. “If I can do these dad moves with my dad bod,” Emhoff wrote to accompany the video, “then hopefully you all can help @KamalaHarris finish 2Q fundraising as strong as possible!”

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