The role of first lady could go to a man. And not just any man: a former president.
It’s tricky – and amusing – to think about what we might call Bill Clinton if his wife wins the presidency in November. Sure, the Internet has made jokes on jokes. But now that Hillary Clinton has clinched the Democratic nomination (and her place in history as the first female presidential nominee by a major party), it’s time to get serious.
In November, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel discussed options for the potential presidential spouse with the now-nominee.
"First dude, first mate, first gentleman — I'm just not sure about it,” Hillary Clinton said.
Bill Clinton himself told talk show host Rachel Ray in January 2015 he would go by "Adam" – as in the first man. "We're joking about this, but it's a serious decision," he said. "Serious decision for Hillary, serious decision for the country and the world."
There are no rules on what we call presidential spouses — whether that person is male or female.
The title we now use began in a grassroots fashion by the press in the 19th century, said author and White House historian William Seale. Though “first lady” was occasionally used referring to Mary Todd Lincoln in the 1860s, it became a more frequent and regular title for President Rutherford Hayes’ wife, Lucy, in the late 1870s, Seale said.
Reminding us how unofficial it is, it’s not typically capitalized in media, even when used in front of our current first lady’s name.
Looking at female leaders around the globe is no help. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's husband, Joachim Sauer, is most commonly known as professor (his full-time job). The first female president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, is not married. Neither is Taiwan's first female president, Tsai Ing-wen. Norway's Prime Minster Erna Solberg is married to Sindre Finnes, but he’s often simply referred to as her husband or spouse.
So what about Bill Clinton?
The very title that he now holds is the same reason that he may have fewer options. “Mr. President” trumps any title of a presidential spouse. “He’s entitled to this title (Mr. President) for the rest of his life, no matter what temporary custodianship he has of this or any other position,” said Anita McBride, former chief of staff to Laura Bush.
So how the country addresses him and his wife in the same room, or same sentence, comes down to semantics. “It comes down to how we write it. What’s going to roll off our tongue in interviews? What’s going to roll off our tongues in the press?” McBride said.
A better question may be how the Clintons would rename the Office of the First Lady. It’s the choice of the incoming administration. “It’s certainly not the most important thing they have to deal with, but it will speak to how they are going to set up their White House," she said
The Office of Former President Bill Clinton is a viable option, said Dr. Lauren Wright, author of On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today. But the Clintons could choose something more neutral if they want the name to stick after their reign. “If they want to set the standard, they probably would choose something like Office of the President’s Spouse,” she said.
What about first gentleman?
The male spouses of the six female governors’ currently holding office in the U.S. unofficially go by “first gentleman.” But don’t expect that title to waltz into the executive mansion. “It’s very corny in the context of the White House,” said Seale, the historian.
“There will be a lot of funny things that will be written, but in formal usage it will be 'former President Clinton' or 'Mrs. Clinton’s husband, President Clinton,'” Seale predicts.
Or maybe we can just call Bill Clinton “42.” The number thing seemed to work for the Bushes.