PHILADELPHIA ― Former President Bill Clinton is set to make history Tuesday night by becoming the first man to ever endorse his wife for U.S. president at a major party’s political convention. Addressing the Democratic National Convention as the country’s first potential first gentleman (first man? first dude?) will challenge centuries of gendered expectations about what it looks like to be the spouse of a presidential nominee.
The former leader of the free world faces some unique challenges in delivering a “first spouse” speech. The task will certainly be trickier for him than it was for Melania Trump, who addressed Republican delegates in Cleveland last week. She took the stage as a relatively unknown figure who gave a heartwarming (albeit plagiarized) speech about immigrating to America.
Clinton, who sat in the Oval Office for eight years and carries decades of political baggage, has a difficult needle to thread: He must effectively defend his record and make a strong case for eight years of a different Clinton administration while also playing the role of humble and admiring spouse.
“He wants to be careful not to suggest a Hillary Clinton presidency would be a third term of his own,” said Jennifer Lawless, an expert on women in politics at American University.
The former president also needs to be careful to avoid “mansplaining” during this historic moment for women ― which may be tough for one of the most acclaimed political orators in modern American history.
“We know one of his strengths is explaining how the world works to people, and he’s going to explain why she’ll be the best president,” Lawless said. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if he juxtaposes himself next to her and gives her higher scores ― not necessarily playing down his own strengths, but elevating her as superior to him.”
Typically, potential “first spouses” who speak at conventions use personal anecdotes to make the candidate look warm, human and relatable. Michelle Obama, for instance, mentioned in her 2012 speech to the DNC that her husband’s favorite possession is an old coffee table he found in a dumpster. Laura Bush, nominating her husband for president in 2000, talked about George W. Bush lying on the floor and reading Hop on Pop to his young daughters while they literally stomped on him.
It’s especially important for Clinton to add warmth to America’s image of his wife, who is often portrayed as stiff, untrustworthy and unlikeable. But it would be difficult for him to deliver a genuine speech about his marriage without calling attention to his infamous 1995 affair with a White House intern.
“He’s much better off speaking to her character and why he first fell in love with her, but stopping short of talking about it in a way where it seems like it’s a conventional kind of love story,” Lawless said. “He wants to avoid post-speech commentary that says, ‘Wait a minute ― remember Monica Lewinsky?’”
There may be significant media attention on Clinton’s personal life after his speech, but he, unlike potential first ladies, probably won’t face much scrutiny over his fashion choices.
When Michelle Obama endorsed her husband at the 2012 DNC, the internet was flooded with in-depth analyses of her pink Tracy Reese dress, the color of which apparently “bordered on bubblegum territory.” The dress Melania Trump wore for her speech last week was said to have a lot of “hidden meaning” that warranted extensive media coverage.
Clinton’s suit color will probably receive less attention Wednesday morning than the substance of his rhetoric. Still, women’s rights advocates are thrilled that his historic speech Tuesday night will play a part in turning gender expectations upside down.
Marcy Stech, a spokeswoman EMILY’s List, an organization focused on helping Democratic women run for office, said she is very much looking forward to seeing how Washington deals with a first gentleman.
“I, for one, cannot wait to see Bill’s tie collection at the Smithsonian,” she said.