'First Gentleman' Might Be Mrs. President's Better Half or Worst Enemy

Historically, the nation has taken a keen interest in the role of its first ladies. And more often than not, they have faced criticism. For most of the 19th century, presidential wives did not assume prominence, and they sometimes relegated the social duties to daughters and nieces.

As the presidency grew, so did the role of the wives. Woodrow Wilson's wife Edith virtually assumed the executive office when her husband suffered a stroke in 1919.

As World War II approached, more American women began to work outside the home and to participate in national issues, shifting the public's expectations for the first lady. Eleanor Roosevelt was the first to redefine the first lady's role from a ceremonial post to an advocate, championing social causes and partnering with her husband. For that she was lauded by some and reviled by others.

By 1960, Jackie Kennedy took on special projects, including the fine arts, historic restoration and tours of the White House. She often trumped the president's spotlight, most notably on a state visit to France in 1961. "People in the streets shouted 'Jackie, Jackie.' She was the center of attention wherever she went." said Baldrige. President Kennedy famously joked that he would be remembered as "the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris. "

From Betty Ford to Rosalynn Carter, first ladies took on their own social causes -- drug abuse, mental health, and in the case of Laura Bush, reading.

In 1986, Nancy Reagan was criticized for what the media described as an "associate presidency." By the time Hillary Clinton arrived at the White House in 1992, the first lady had become a political powerhouse, leading her husband's health care initiative. For that she was lambasted.

When Bill Clinton launched his first presidential campaign, Hillary was touted as a strength, according to Michele Swers, assistant professor of political science at Georgetown University. "He said voters would get two-for-one because she was so smart," she said. "But people didn't like the idea that the first lady has an influence on policy."

The first gentleman question will most likely have an impact on the Hillary's 2008 bid for the presidency. "The main issue of the first female presidential candidates will be how to deal with the perception of the influence the husband," said Swers. "It's in the campaigning now. What's the role of your husband in the political decision making?"

Much of what to expect in a first gentleman will rest in the man himself, according to Russell Riley, presidential scholar at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs. "As much as we think the Constitution matters," he said, "personality really plays a role -- from a Calvin Coolidge to Jimmy Carter."

Paul Pelosi has been described as private person. The 66-year-old San Francisco businessman helped finance his wife's political career, making her the 9th richest elected official in the 435-member House, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The couple leads a bicoastal life, but he often stands in for his wife at fundraising dinners.

By contrast, Bill Clinton, could be appointed to a Cabinet post. Already, the 60-year-old has been visible in the campaign. Riley says that this presidential husband would not be a wilting flower.

"It's almost impossible to comprehend Bill Clinton in anything other than a major policy role," said Riley.

The fact that Bill Clinton has already served as president himself poses particular problems for Hillary's campaign, said Riley. "He is larger than life -- a figure that builds any space available to him. It's difficult to think of about him in any way but an expansive mode."

"This is one of the real challenges for Senator Clinton -- how to deal with the former president on the campaign trail," said Riley. "It previews what happens when she becomes president. Just the choreography of this in a micro and a macro sense is incredibly complicated. Bill Clinton is the brightest star on any stage he stands on, and that is the last thing a presidential candidate wants around."

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