WASHINGTON – Let us ponder the issue of first spouses.
Former first lady Laura Bush said the other day she is looking forward to the nation’s “first man” and the 24/7 attention he will get for his hairstyle, his ties or lack thereof, his wardrobe and his weight. In a C-Span interview, she said presumably the first husband would continue his professional career.
But, she said, the first spouse should not get an official salary and should “stand back and be quiet” on national issues. Perhaps, she suggested, the first first man could take on the subject of men’s health as his special interest.
One can only imagine all the men out there dreaming of being first man.
Some people (they know who they are) are rooting for Hillary Clinton to be elected president just to see what former President Bill Clinton would be like as first man. We can be fairly certain he would not “stand back and be quiet” on national issues.
Actually, it’s hard to imagine anybody wanting to be the first spouse. Except for losing the White House chef and access to Camp David, almost all first ladies were thrilled when their sentences ended.
Michelle Obama, trained as a lawyer, says she loves being “mom-in-chief” and advancing her interests in reducing child obesity, helping veterans find jobs and making college more affordable. So what has garnered the most attention for her? Bare arms and bangs over her forehead.
It’s time to make the position of first spouse an official one with a salary. Rich people could give the money to a charity if they wish, but we should not expect all that we do from someone who is not elected and is unpaid.
Being first spouse is incredibly demanding. It means being in charge of a household/museum with a staff of nearly 100 and a separate office staff of 24. It means hosting diplomats and foreign leaders and being constantly aware of protocol. It means big dinner parties and foreign trips and watching what you say and do. It means worrying about security and losing your privacy. It means making certain your children grow up well-grounded.
We are lucky that our first ladies have been classy and public-spirited and willing to donate their time and talent while losing their privacy. But each has had to pay for her family’s food, dry cleaning and other personal expenses. And traditionally, she has not pursued her own career in the White House or even after except for writing memoirs or, in the case of Hillary Clinton, being elected a senator, running for president, becoming secretary of state and being paid $200,000 per speech.
Fortunately, we have not yet had a situation that recently faced France, where the president brought in his girlfriend to perform first lady duties and then dumped her for someone else.
Not paying the first spouse while expecting mountainous chores and endless hours is extremely old-fashioned and smacks of not valuing women. (Even in our “enlightened” age, women earn only 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.)
As we contemplate the idea of having a first man in the White House, the concept of paying him a salary will certainly take on more merit. A spouse who continued working either in business, a profession or politics doubtless would run into problems of perceived conflicts of interest raised by the opposition party if by nobody else.
Having a first man around also might show us that there are a lot of silly chores dumped on the first spouse that no longer are necessary, such as welcoming the annual Christmas tree driven up to the White House in a horse-drawn carriage. On the other hand, a female president with a husband could dump some unpleasant tasks on him, such as pardoning a turkey at Thanksgiving.
We have a lot to think about as we sort through this thorny issue. But at least we have a tidier situation than the French.
Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune. Readers may send her email at [email protected]