March 02, 2020

The First – Lady? Husband? Spouse?

Anita McBride, Laura Bush’s chief of staff, shares insights on the evolution of the first lady’s role throughout history, obstacles they face transitioning to the White House and how the role might change after this year’s election. McBride also explores the unique challenges first ladies have faced, the timeless pressures associated with the role and her personal experience working with first lady Laura Bush. 

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Read the highlights:

Dave: “You mentioned the press secretary being an important position for the first lady, that the media scrutiny of first ladies is intense and a lot of it, frankly, is old fashion. How they look, how they dress? How, how did you deal with that and will that change?”

Anita: “It’s such a great question. It’s one that actually throughout our entire history as a country, it’s never changed to me. You even read history books, you read memoirs of other first ladies. Even though we don’t have a lot of Martha Washington’s writings, we do know she had said she felt the pressure for her hair and her clothes to be washed and dressed and set every single day as she was holding these salons to meet the citizens of this new Republic. From day one the spouse of the president, the first ladies, have felt this pressure on how they look and the scrutiny over that.” 

Dave: “Looking back at history, there have been nontraditional spouses – Woodrow Wilson’s daughter served the role, Andrew Jackson’s niece and daughter-in-law served in the role. What are the challenges that nontraditional spouses or nontraditional partners might face in playing the role?” 

Anita: “As long as they have the support of the president, they have an opportunity to make a difference just as if it had been a married spouse. There are many examples through our history where a niece, a daughter or someone has had to fulfill generally what has been a social role, but also have taken on [policy] issues. Like Harriet Lane Johnston, Buchanan’s niece, was very well known in Washington for being very engaged in social issues related to women and children. I see it as more of an opportunity to help this role evolve even further. If someone nontraditional is taking on the responsibilities but using it to the best of their ability, finding their voice, using their platform, which is so unique and helps move our country forward, then it’s an opportunity, not a challenge.” 

Dave: “Let’s talk about a few of these individuals. We’re taping this on the Thursday before the South Carolina primary, right? And before Super Tuesday. We have no idea who the democratic nominee is going to be and we have no idea whether President Trump will win or lose. Let’s talk about a few of the individuals. Dr. Jill Biden, who’s a professor, an English professor, she was the first second-lady to hold a job. Could a first lady hold a job outside of being first lady?” 

Anita: “Well, she has helped the country think differently on how someone in these leadership roles and our government can also have a private life. I’m sure it was not without her challenges balancing the schedule, wanting to travel with your spouse, but also having actual classwork to do. And she had eight successful years of doing that. If that were to be the case, that she has already found the way to balance it and would continue to do that.” 

Dave: “So, she could be the first first-lady to work and have a full-time or part-time job.” 

Anita: “I think we’re heading in that direction at some point.” 

Dave: “Let’s talk about Michael Bloomberg. He’s not married. He spends time with a woman named Diana Taylor who was a very highly accomplished professional, had a number of senior corporate and government roles in New York. She defines herself as quote the person aside from his children who knows Bloomberg the best. What would be the unique issues that she would face if Mayor Bloomberg were elected president?” 

Anita: “Well, if she chooses to move to the White House with him and actually live in the White House she would have to make the decision, does she want to take on those traditional roles that we some see come out of the East wing, you know the ones I’m talking about: it’s being the social hostess of the White House. Will she want to keep up her professional obligations? There is enough of a structure around the White House where that can work. I think the decision would be personal between the two of them as well. And would a President Bloomberg, if there were to be a such a thing, want to utilize any of the other members of his family in a role to fulfill some of these obligations too.”

Dave: “So we have the possibility of the first husband. What would you call a male in the role?” 

Anita: “We wrestled with this in 2008, when Hillary Clinton ran for president – what would we call Bill Clinton? It’s a little complicated with him because he was former president. There were other names being batted about, office of the first spouse was the one that gathered the most traction.” 

Dave: “Senator Amy Klobuchar, her husband is a distinguished professor. Senator Warren’s husband is also a lawyer and a professor at Harvard. Pete Buttigieg is married, his husband is a teacher. What would be the unique issues that each of them would face?”

Anita: “Again, do they want to continue in their fulltime professional roles, or take perhaps a temporary departure as they are assimilating into the White House? No one can completely prepare you for moving into the White House and what comes with that. Now you have this enormous staff around you, I’m talking residents, staff that basically handle all the things you always handled for yourself. And they’re there for a reason. They’re there because the responsibilities that fall on the president’s shoulders are so monumental and so huge, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The resident staff is there to make your life easier and we should want that for our presidents, and their families, because the person who feels the responsibility for the president’s wellbeing the most is the person closest to them: their spouse.”

Dave: “Let me ask you another question on pushing the boundaries of gender identity. So traditionally the first lady hosts other first spouses, most of whom are women, occasionally there are men. How would that work if they were a male spouse? And would that be different?”

Anita: “No, I think it would be great. We’re in the 21st century, in 2020 men and women work together all the time. And why, really, should this be any different? It’s using the White House again as another opportunity to help push the envelope a little further.  What if it were a President Buttigieg and his husband as the spouse in the White House convening counterparts from around the States, and even around the world, to work on projects together? My feeling is, it’s a platform. Whether it’s a male or female that has the privilege and temporary custodianship of that platform, just use that platform well. Use it to make a difference. Use it to help people. Use it to further your interests. If it helps further the growth and development and the evolution of our country, then so be it. Use it well.”