Monday, December 20, 2010

Do we need a First Lady?

Matt Yglesias points out that the semi-homemade TV chef Sandra Lee is married to Andrew Cuomo, and thus there is a non-zero chance that our nation could, in the next decade or so, have a First Lady who believes this is an appropriate homage to Kwanzaa. This is indeed a disturbing universe. But I disagree a bit with Matt's reflections on the role of First Lady:
The country does, in fact, need someone to play the hostess-in-chief role but that’s simply not compatible with the range of career options open to today’s women.
The hostess-in-chief role developed at a time when there simply wasn't much of an executive staff devoted to the social aspects of White House life.  When Dolly Madison hosted a party, she actually hosted the party.  Today, White House social functions are run by a large, experienced, and highly efficient organization.  Here's Wikipedia's description of the office of White House Social Secretary:
The Social Secretary is head of the White House Social Office, located in the East Wing of the White House Complex. The Social Secretary plans events ranging from those as simple as a tea for the First Lady and a single official guest, to dinners for more than 200 guests. The Social Secretary works with the White House Chief Usher to coordinate domestic staff and with the Chief of Protocol of the United States, an official within the United States Department of State, to plan state visits and accompanying state dinners. The Social Secretary works with the White House Graphics and Calligraphy Office in the production of invitations to social events.
The simple truth is that we don't need the president's wife to be the First Lady any more than we need the president to pardon a turkey or issue a proclamation for National Clown Week.  But no president wants to be the first to point this out.


Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

The fact that Presidents have found it necessary, even when those Presidents have not themselves had spouses, suggests that the need is real.

The United States is not a country blessed with a separate head of state and head of government. The President must be both. And, while a head of government does not need a first lady counterpart, a head of state, who fulfills a social role on the international scene where social conventions dating back to the era of monarchy still prevail, does.

Seth said...

I'm not sure there's still a need. I believe the last time a non-spouse served as first lady was nearly a century ago. The White House staff has grown substantially since then, and obviously the roles of and expectations for spouses (political or otherwise) have changed, too.

marc said...

Limited monarchy is so the way to go. They can do all the ceremonial stuff. Monarchy is fun so long as you don't let them have access to the Pope or guillotines. They soak up the market for specious scandals from politicians. The king is off screwing the intern and everyone can laugh about that, and the President can keep talking about taxes or whatnot. We should start with a family already in the tabloids, like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, and go from there. Look at the UK and France. UK pols are useful technocrats and the Queens does all the parties. Meanwhile France has no king, and government is constantly getting lost in reports of Carla Bruni's shoe choices.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

White House staff are incapable of capturing the symbolic power or filling the social role of a First Lady. A First Lady is a component of the symbolic need for a head of state, not of the need for someone to actually stage manage official events.

The only other person who rivals a First Lady's symbolic role is the Vice President. You can't send the Social Secretary or White House Chief Usher to a state funeral. This would disrespect the person in question. You can send the First Lady or Vice President who share the President's official head of state symbolic status, even though they lack much governmental authority.

Sending a First Lady is a bit like sending a member of the Royal Family in England other than the Queen, sending a servant isn't.

Seth said...

So the First Lady's as necessary as the Vice President? Not selling it.