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The Unnecessary Thirst for the First Gentlemen

Why are we tripping over ourselves to worship the husbands of politicians?

In the summer of 2019, when the Democratic primary was wide open, The Forward brought its Jewish-American perspective to the campaign of Bernie Sanders, who stood to become the first Jewish president. They poked fun at him with headlines like “Bernie Sanders Insists That He’s Not a Grumpy Self-Hating Jew” and pondered questions such as “Why Don’t More Jews Like Bernie Sanders?” Amid this scrutiny, they dropped a fluffy profile of rival candidate Senator Kamala Harris’ husband, Douglas Emhoff. It proudly declared him “Our Hot Jewish Dad Crush.” Seems as though a man can easily get favorable coverage if he’s out of the race, though adjacent to it. 

Among the spouses of the Democratic hopefuls, wrote Jenny Singer, “there is only one in the bunch who can be described as a Hot Jewish Dad. Only one future First Gentleman is a Brooklyn-born bar mitzvah boy who grew up to become an actual nice Jewish lawyer.” An unnamed staffer added that Emhoff would qualify as a “zaddy.”

Thirst: established.

After Harris was anointed Joe Biden’s 2020 running mate, The Forward once again flattered the now potential Second Gentleman, this time with “the schmaltzy story of how he wooed” the woman who may well be our next vice president. This is not an isolated phenomenon; it would appear that digital media is determined to view the husbands of politicians in a rosy if not downright horny light. Also in 2019, Mashable crowned Chasten Buttigieg “the Twitter celebrity we deserve,” which sounds unintentionally ominous, and in two short weeks, the cover of his well-marketed memoir, I Have Something to Tell You, graced the social accounts of many a Mayor Pete booster. Marie Claire praised Senator Elizabeth Warren’s professor husband, Bruce Mann, as “low-key but incredibly supportive.”

When Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was on Senator John McCain’s 2008 ticket, husband Todd Palin, “First Dude” of the state, was portrayed as a down-to-earth family man and champion snowmobiler, despite growing concerns over an ethics scandal and his ties to the Alaska secessionist movement. A Glamour writer who met him began her short article about the experience with this flirty framing: “Although I’ve been somewhat critical of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s choice for running mate, I have to admit that if I were going to run a singles ad, it would read: ‘Desperately Seeking Todd Palin clone. Must be tall, dark and handsome, soft-spoken and secure enough to stand by a strong woman.’” 

This ass-kissing has kept pace with an upward tick of women and openly gay men seeking higher office. Where there is a husband to admire, he will have his due in fawning press and tweets. It’s a far cry from the belittlement and condescension that has dogged First Ladies at least since Mary Todd Lincoln’s day. The wives who aren’t nitpicked go ignored. Can you remember anyone making a big deal out of Senator Tim Kaine’s wife, or call her name to mind?

Somehow, the husbands have landed a far kinder arrangement: They remain mostly apolitical appendages who, by clearing modest bars of domestic duty — and in their willingness to stand by an ambitious partner supposedly challenging the old patriarchy — serve as innocuous role models for a gentler masculinity. They love their kids! They cook! They have respectable careers and bear the electoral insanity with stoic good humor. Their ideology doesn’t really matter, since they will not be in power. And because U.S. government isn’t exactly swarming with handsome men, their clean, generic-white-guy looks are inflated into relativistic hotness.  

In short, we admire these fellows for being married to the public-facing leaders of our dysfunctional democracy — and not complaining about it. Bill and Hillary Clinton make for an instructive exception here, since he, as a former president with a mountain of baggage, would never have taken on the figurehead status of other First Gentlemen, and she had been vilified early in his administration for refusing the constraints of the First Lady gig. The 2020 prospects for a house husband at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, though, all showcased a patient yes-man quality and the disinclination to enmesh themselves in D.C. drama. This remove brands them as humble, whereas a politician’s wife acting the same way might be taken as “distant” or “cold.” Occasionally, a conservative will paint them as emasculated, but the attack rarely sticks.

There’s no clear standard for how the partners of candidates should be vetted; what we can say is that the husbands are unlikely to take flak for the clothes they wear or the sound of their voice. They also earn unnecessary plaudits for the safety and softness of their white-collar image — for being a professor, lawyer or venture capitalist, bespectacled and gracefully balding, a decent guy along for the ride. It could be that where we once looked for a sparkling yet subordinate housewife to legitimize the men we’d put in charge of the country, we want a sensible, sensitive husband to assure us that a Kamala Harris (or Pete Buttigieg) is worthy of greater influence. Were Harris single, she might be perceived as too ruthless, monomaniacal. We are thrilled to see her with a respectable man, and we want to give him credit for existing. Nothing could impress us more than his commitment to aggressively normal Wife Guy behavior. 

A lot of this excess love for First Gentlemen is still theoretical: We’ve yet to swear in a president, or vice president, with a husband — and the national spotlight is far less forgiving. Even The Forward’s initial piece on Emhoff prompted eye-rolls from Harris detractors on the left. For now, anyway, however difficult it is to make it as a woman or gay man in Washington, it’s inversely easy to wow voters as the mellow man they come home to.

Nice work if you can get it.