Former President Bill Clinton won’t need a tour of the White House should his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, win the 2016 presidential election. But despite his familiarity with the historic halls and offices, he would be in an entirely new position: the first-ever first gentleman in U.S. history.
It’s a possible role change the former president has had to address since his wife first ran for president in 2008. As first gentleman, Clinton would have to shift from a focus on the family's Clinton Foundation and speaking engagements, reportedly worth more than $100 million since 2001, to a new position in the White House where he wouldn't be the center of attention.
"First, I would have to assess what [Hillary] wants me to do," Clinton told Town and Country Magazine earlier this month. "And second, we might have to change the [foundation] rules again. But we haven't talked about that yet, and I don't think we should. You can't. It's hard for any party to hang onto the White House for 12 years, and it's a long road. A thousand things could happen."
If Hillary does win, Bill won't be entirely in new territory. There have been notable first gentlemen worldwide for years.
Asif Ali Zardari, co-chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party and former Pakistani president, followed a unique path as first gentleman. He was husband to popular Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December 2007. Before ascending to political power in his own right, Zardari was nicknamed “Mr. 10 percent” for his alleged involvement in kickback schemes, for which he eventually was sent to prison, the BBC reported. He was considered steadfastly loyal, however. His late wife said of Zardari: “Despite his failings, he always stood by his family no matter what,” according to the BBC.
Sir Denis Thatcher, husband to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was a less controversial first gentleman. He was described as a first man who maintained “dignity and modesty,” earning the public’s affection, despite his hesitance to speak with the media. Thatcher, who died in 2003, called himself the “most shadowy husband of all time,” the Associated Press reported (via NYTimes.com).
Perhaps the most prominent first gentleman in current times is Joachim Sauer, husband to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a theoretical chemist. He is largely considered a bright, solid partner to his wife’s political career. He once sternly told reporters in 2005, “I am not going to say anything into your microphone,” according to Reuters.
Of course, it’s hard to imagine Clinton following in the footsteps of Sauer or Thatcher given the former president's boisterous personality. In fact, in a recent interview on Rachel Ray’s show, a lighthearted Clinton said he wouldn't embrace the title of “first gentleman,” suggesting instead “Adam,” the Bible’s first man. He previously suggested he be called the Scottish term “first laddie.” A recent Saturday Night Live skit poked at the former president, with a Clinton impersonator calling himself “first dude” and hinting at his penchant for attracting attention.
Whatever he is called, Hillary Clinton’s campaign will have to figure out quickly how to “harness both the rare gifts and rash impulses of a former president on behalf of a potential one,” the New York Times recently reported, alluding to Bill Clinton’s sometimes polarizing public persona.
Clinton has acknowledged as a first husband, or even as the spouse of a candidate, the focus on his actions will increase significantly and perhaps change the dynamics of his daily life. “It’s a great thing, you know, being an ex-president,” he said in a speech at the New Republic’s 100-year anniversary party in November 2014. “You can say whatever you want. And the sad thing is, no one cares anymore. Unless your wife might run for office ... then they care if you mess up.”
At the very least, perhaps the former president could take on some household chores, such as packing a bagged lunch for his wife, a task he joked about in a video at the 2000 White House Correspondents' Dinner that poked fun at his lame-duck life. Sixteen years later, Clinton might once again find himself with time on his hands in his old home.