The question arises more frequently than one might imagine.
If the first woman elected President of the United States and is not widowed, divorced or single, will it be her or her spouse that the National First Ladies Library focuses on, in keeping with the mission of the institution?
Obviously, that elected official will not be a First Lady – but rather a President. And if she has a husband, then he he won’t be a First Lady – but rather a “First Gent.”
The subject came to public attention again, in passing and in a lighter vein, with the recent death of the actress Polly Bergen.
One half-century ago, as President Lyndon B. Johnson was running for his own full term in 1964, Polly Bergen starred in the comedy Kisses for My President, the first feature film to feature the first woman President.
The book often considered the launch in the popular culture of the “Women’s Lib” movement, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, had only been published months before Kisses for My President was released. It was an era when the film’s premise of a woman actually being elected and then serving as an American President seemed so absurd that the movie couldn’t be produced as anything but a comedy.
Even though Bergen’s Leslie McCloud carries out her duties as the chief executive, her appearance is decidedly that of a First Lady of that era in the immediate aftermath of Mamie Eisenhower and Jackie Kennedy: white gloves, matching pillbox, monochromatic day suits.
The focus, however, is less about Madame President Leslie Harrison McCloud and more about that man she married.
Bergen’s co-star Fred MacMurray depicted another “first” in political film history, the “First Male First Lady,” as the movie poster declared.
His character of Thad McCloud was a rather hapless presidential spouse, wandering around the White House uncertain about his what his public role should be.
When he stumbles into the East Wing, he discovers his staff of a Social Secretary and Personal Secretary, who cluck and coo to him that his life could be “one mad social whirl” if he was willing to preside over ribbon-cutting ceremonies and attend fashion show luncheons fundraisers.
MacMurray’s character is too polite to challenge this presumption of public expectations, responding only with a politely quizzical raising of his eyebrows.
At the time of the film’s public release it was still a year away from the nation watching as new kind of First Lady was evolving under the months-old tenure of Lady Bird Johnson.
With her commitment to civil rights and environmental protection legislation, Mrs. Johnson soon introduced a more publicly overt level of political activity and policy advocacy.
In contrast, while Thad McCloud exercises his marital prerogative of advising his spouse on her work, just like all First Ladies had done in real life, he only does so privately.
Had Kisses For My President been made a decade after it was, the shift in public perception of gender roles might have made for a more comfortable film version of the first First Gent.
Here is a short video considering the former President becoming the future First Gent and some moments from Kisses for My President:
The movie is of the “fish out of water” genre, placing a humble and reserved white American male in a business suit in the position of what is expected to be a middle-aged matron of leisure who’s world is dominated by fashion, flowers and parties.
Kisses for My President was certainly not fine drama nor laugh-riot comedy, but it actually serves a more interesting purpose now, as a window into the general public perceptions of proper gender roles of married American men and women, as exemplified by the couple in the White House.
Certainly closer to what is likely to be the reality was the depiction of First Gentleman Rod Calloway, played by actor Kyle Secor, in the first television drama series about the first woman US President, entitled Commander in Chief. With actress Geena Davis in the lead role, the series ran just eighteen episodes, from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2006.
This TV First Gent is certainly more substantively engaged than the caricature type MacMurray intended. The Rod Calloway First Gent is a political player himself, having served as Connecticut state attorney general and with rank in the U.S. Army.
Much as First Ladies like Florence Harding, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton, and Nellie Taft did, this First Gent has had a role in his spouse’s rise to power, only his was made official.
In the script’s backstory, it is learned that Calloway had served as Chief of Staff to his wife when she was serving as Vice President of the United States, the venue through which she inherits the presidency due to the Chief Executive’s death.
Nevertheless, like Thad McCloud, Rod Calloway is unsettled by having to assume a ceremonial role in public, and he gives serious consideration to accepting the offer of baseball commissioner in nearby Baltimore until his wife convinces him that his role as presidential counselor is vital to her success.
IAlthough her appointing him Presidential Strategic Planning Adviser would be a difficult move in reality (putting a presidential spouse on the federal payroll), this fictional presidential spouse’s run-ins and power-plays with Madame President’s Chief of Staff certainly ring true to the history of conflicts between First Ladies and male Chiefs of Staff.
It was only two years after the series was pulled by the network that reality finally trumped fantasy – or nearly it.
With the candidacy for her party’s presidential nomination, the former First Lady and then-US Senator Hillary Clinton grasped the closest of the various women who have tried before, in either serious or symbolic efforts, to win the American presidency.
Through it all, the media was just as equally fixated on her husband – himself, of course, being a former President of the United States – Bill Clinton.
There was no hiding his overt commitment to his wife’s victory or that his experienced political advice was a factor she relied upon.
The potential role that Bill Clinton might have played had Hillary Clinton won her party’s nomination and then the general election can only be a matter of speculation as it will be again, perhaps, if she determines to run again for the 2016 nomination.
And while the potential of his assuming such a role would be utterly unique in American popular culture and certainly interesting from the perspective of what it may reflect on evolving gender roles, let alone marital politics, Bill Clinton’s potential First Gent role must really remain in a category by itself for, after all, he is no mere man, or husband but rather a former President of the United States.
That represents such an absolutely, utterly unique condition that resists being quantified into any neat, little category.
Yet for the very facts that Bill Clinton is long familiar to the world as a President with a spouse who was an overt political partner and as a former President who has appeared at numerous public ceremonies and political events in a secondary, supportive but subordinate role behind his wife in her roles as Senator and then Secretary of State, he has already cast a conception of just what a 21st century first First Gent would do.
Add to this his long history of non-partisan domestic projects and global initiatives through his foundation and one finds he has conducted charitable efforts in a manner not too differently than a 21st First Lady would.
Until the United States has the real experience of a woman President and the likely simultaneous scenario of its first First Gent, the question has everyone from political scientists to satirists speculating on just what he would, could and should do.
There is even debate about what to call him, ranging from the reasonable one of “First Gentleman” most often seen on tee-shirts, buttons and bumper stickers to the sarcastic one of “Mr. First Lady.”
And just in case Hillary Clinton does become the second President Clinton, Bill Clinton had already weighed in on the matter as well, musing that, in a nod to the traditional title given women presidential spouses as well as his own Scottish heritage.
He’d like to simply be called “First Laddie.”