Our attention was drawn last week to the presidential campaign of Lindsey Graham. The Scrapbook likes and admires Graham, the veteran Republican senator from South Carolina, but concedes that he is probably not the likely nominee. Graham’s specialty is foreign relations, which never plays a prominent role in primary politics, and he doesn’t have much of a campaign staff or fundraising apparatus.
He does have one particular distinction, however, shared by no other candidate in either party: Lindsey Graham is not married. Which is to say, if he were to be elected president next year, America would have no first lady after January 20, 2017. This singular status has attracted press attention and prompted one news organization to ask him (in apparent seriousness) how this social deficit would affect a Graham White House.
“Well, I’ve got a sister,” Graham gamely responded. “She could play that role if necessary. I’ve got a lot of friends. We’ll have a rotating first lady.”
The Scrapbook’s advice to Senator Graham is not to worry too much. Yes, most of our presidents have been married, and their wives, to varying degrees, successfully fulfilled the function of White House hostess. But as with most everything in the executive branch of government, the institution of “first lady”—which goes unmentioned in the Constitution—has grown to disproportionate, one might say gargantuan, size in modern times.
Very nearly an entire wing of the executive mansion is now the headquarters of the first lady, who comes equipped with voluminous staff, Secret Service protection, and access to a generous travel allowance.
All of which, in The Scrapbook’s judgment, is entirely superfluous and unimportant. We have had a few first ladies of political consequence—certainly Edith Wilson and Eleanor Roosevelt, maybe Lady Bird Johnson, perhaps Hillary Rodham Clinton—and other first ladies of achievement: Lucy Webb (Mrs. Rutherford B.) Hayes graduated from college (Ohio Wesleyan, 1850) at a time when few women anywhere in the world pursued higher education, and Lou Henry (Mrs. Herbert) Hoover, a pioneering graduate of Stanford (1898), was a Chinese linguist and geologist.
But presidents aren’t monarchs; and their families, while interesting at times, aren’t critical, or even necessary, to their presidencies. Indeed, we have had two bachelor presidents (James Buchanan, Grover Cleveland) and some of our most important chief executives (Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson) took office as widowers, and remained widowers throughout their tenure. To be sure, Cleveland got married in the White House, and some first ladies (Caroline Harrison, Ellen Wilson) died while their husbands were in office. But as Senator Graham suggests, there have always been capable substitutes at hand—sisters, nieces, daughters, friends—for the social requirements of the White House. The republic will endure.
Which brings us to a political footnote. Three times in the past four decades, the unmarried Gov. Jerry Brown (D) of California ran credible races for the presidency—and The Scrapbook has no recollection of any concern in the media about who would be Brown’s White House hostess. Similarly, the favorite for next year’s Democratic nomination is the aforementioned Hillary Clinton—whose husband would be (if Mrs. Clinton were elected) the first White House host in history.
Frankly, the prospect of Bill Clinton as America’s first gentleman strikes The Scrapbook as more worrisome than a lonely Lindsey Graham in the White House.