If Hillary Clinton becomes the nominee of the Democratic Party to contest the 2016 presidential election (very likely) and wins the November election (she could), it will be a culmination of the cult of the American First Lady.
If she’s sworn in in January 2017, that will have been in the making for over 240 years, or since Martha Washington occupied a presidential mansion in Philadelphia (before the city named after her husband, George, was built, or obviously, the White House) and was referred to by visitors as ‘our Lady Presidentess’.
She was the first of a long line of first ladies to charm the public, even if it chafed at their husbands. Abraham Lincoln depended on Mary Todd, John F Kennedy’s wife Jackie occupied a starry space of her own, and Ronald Reagan’s decisions were often predicated on what Nancy’s astrologer predicted.
The current incumbent, Barack Obama’s policies may have fewer fans than those that fawn over Michelle’s new ‘do. In fact, this FLOTUS, or First Lady of the United States, has, like other recent predecessors, her own apparatus including an efficient media operation. For instance, a recent White House schedule pointed to Michelle Obama selecting the china for the state dinner honouring the visiting Japanese prime minister, which may have been apt since that subject was certainly on the table during official talks. If she were to opt for politics post-2016, she could probably walk into any office.
Like much that is American, like urban race riots, this may appear alien to an Indian. After all, since the time of Kamala Nehru, the first spouse has been as significant in the country’s discourse as Kumar Gaurav’s second film. That may have changed somewhat with Rajiv Gandhi because of the apparent origin sin, but his successors ensured the tradition of spousal anonymity remained a mark of our democracy. Try naming the wives of VP Singh, Chandrashekhar, HD Deve Gowda, IK Gujral or even Manmohan Singh. PV Narasimha Rao came into office a widower, AB Vajpayee a bachelor, and our current incumbent’s relationship status is only acknowledged on an election affidavit, where such a mention was mandatory.
The critical issue facing the American populace will be what to call the spouse of a woman president. ‘First Gentleman’ gets acronymed into the ugly FGOTUS. There’s no magic in that. Or in a double-downer like POTUS-FGOTUS — since in this case the spouse would also be a former president — that sounds too much like hocus pocus, and may remind too many of the Clintons’ habit of magical thinking.
Sarah Palin, as governor of Alaska, had her husband described as the ‘First Dude’. But in these times of government cutbacks, an E could be dropped, making things awkward.
Bill Clinton, in one interview, tossed out Adam as an option, referring to the Biblical First Man. Or, alternatively, in 2008, he said his Scottish friends had suggested ‘First Laddie’. Either way he will be First Something. Of course, that time, Obama rained on Hillary’s reign-to-be.
From her legacy as secretary of state — of a West Asian wasteland, to a grand deletion of emails, and questionable donors to the Clinton Foundation, from Saudis to Russians to Sant Chatwal, it could be 2008 again if a viable competitor emerges, asking whether those quids came with a pro quo. She carries more baggage than an overburdened porter at New Delhi Railway Station.
The Clintons are American royalty, worth over $100 million. Still, Hillary has been belting out this refrain, without any sense of irony: “The deck is still stacked in favour of those at the top, and we need to shuffle the cards. We need to play a different hand.” Meanwhile, it may just be that the jokers are in another pack.
The Republican field, as currently constructed, points to the former first lady moving into the Oval Office. Her status as a former FLOTUS has carried her this far and thus far, and possibly further, it has worked for her.
(Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs. The views expressed by the author are personal)