Mrs. President?

Posted: Mar 31, 2007 12:01 AM
Mrs. President?

In response to Barbara Walters' question of whether he would allow his wife Judith to sit in on Cabinet meetings if he becomes president, Rudy Giuliani said, "If she wanted to. If they were relevant to something that she was interested in. I mean that would be something that I'd be very, very comfortable with." Across the nation, one could almost hear the other Republican presidential contenders heave hearty sighs of relief. Perhaps the Rudy juggernaut will indeed derail itself.

As if Rudy hadn't done enough damage by telling America that he would not only be "very comfortable" with his third wife sitting in on Cabinet meetings but adding an extra "very" for good measure, his wife joined the conversation adding that she would enthusiastically sit in on policy meetings if given the green light by her husband, "and certainly in the areas of health care." As Mrs. Giuliani's name will not be appearing on any ballot, the couple is staking out some rather bold turf here.

A solid Red-Meat Republican's first instinct when hearing of the Giuliani's ambitious spousal plans will be to think back to the Bad Old Days when the Clintons ruled the land. Where a less uxorious husband might have been satisfied to give his wife a broach or some other expensive bauble to celebrate their newly won power, Bill Clinton gave Hillary Clinton 14% of the American economy to toy with as a cat does a terrified mouse.

Mrs. Clinton's effort to impose Hillary-Care on an unwilling nation was a historic blunder by the normally shrewd First Couple. While Mrs. Clinton had qualifications and a curriculum vitae far more impressive than the present Mrs. Giuliani, there was no possible defense for the notion that she was the country's most qualified individual to retool the American healthcare system. In short, the president's selection of his wife for such an important task was an outrageous act of nepotism.

Her suddenly sweeping power violated deeply held American values. The Founding Fathers' decision to avoid the trappings of monarchy was not accidental nor was it lightly made. In the system they designed, the President would be no king and his wife, therefore, would be no queen. Until the Clintons, every prior president showed a demonstrable understanding of this basic fact. As First Lady, the presidential spouse had ceremonial functions and was welcome to tackle uncontroversial Motherhood-and-Apple-Pie issues like literacy. And when a First Lady grew too big for her britches in the media's eyes (as Nancy Reagan often did), various forces vigorously acted to return her to her proper place.

To be fair to Rudy, the Giulianis' comments aren't entirely without precedent. When Geraldine Ferraro was Walter Mondale's running mate back in 1984, her husband, John Zaccaro, told the media that if she were to ever become president, he would insist on attending all the important meetings his President-wife held. One could argue that this statement somewhat undermined the whole feminist empowerment thing that Mondale's selection of Ferraro was supposed to advance.

And there have been First Ladies other than Mrs. Clinton who have wielded great power while in the White House. After her husband Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke, Edith Wilson assumed many of the day-to-day responsibilities of president. While doing so, Mrs. Wilson had the good sense to not attempt a retooling of a massive chunk of the American economy or to launch any other significant policy adventures. She was a caretaker for the office of the president just as she was a caretaker for the president himself.

More importantly, the scale of Mrs. Wilson's role was at the time largely unknown. She operated behind the scenes. If the American people had known the scope of Mrs. Wilson's role, they likely wouldn't have tolerated it. President Wilson's eager Vice President, Thomas Riley Marshall, certainly wouldn't have tolerated it.

Where the Giulianis truly stumbled was in assuming that the Clintons established a new norm. Quite the contrary, the Clintons' dalliance with monarchial privilege was not only disastrous but widely unpopular. Bill Clinton's appointment of his wife to a role of such import was a moment of historic arrogance.

The Clintons did have the defense, however, that candidate Clinton was quite explicit that America would be getting "two Clintons for the price of one" if they voted for him. In other words, America had fair warning.

Still, when Mrs. Clinton became healthcare czarina, the common sentiment was that the first couple had gone too far. If the Giulianis anticipate a similarly sweeping role for Mrs. Giuliani, they might want to keep the lessons of the Clintons' missteps in mind. Besides, if Mrs. Giuliani truly wants a prominent voice on policy, there are avenues available that will give her the kind of legitimacy that a royal decree from her husband will lack.

She can always run for Senator.