fathers and husbands, in a house that is white

I am fond of Garry Wills. I don’t always agree with him (heck, I don’t always agree with me) but I think his writing is generally informative, insightful and entertaining. So I found his op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times not just frustrating but infuriating.

Mr. Wills writes that Two Presidents Are Worse Than One, essentially saying that it would be a disaster to have a co-president, and that should Senator Clinton win the White House, Our Previous President, as the spouse of the President would be in effect a Co-President, unelected, unimpeachable and uncontrollable. I do understand that this is a new situation, but it isn’t that new. Mr. Wills gives the bad example of Our Only President and his vice-president; giving the vice-president so much power he sees as detrimental to our constitutional government.

It seems odd, in that context, not to bring up the fact that Our Only President does have someone in his immediate family who held the office. You know, his father. Why is it OK to have an elected President whose father is an ex-president, and would therefore (potentially) act as a sort of unelected, unimpeachable and uncontrollable co-president? Surely a father has as much influence as a wife? Or a husband?

I’m trying to see this column as anything other than pathetically chauvinist. I’m not succeeding. I think he sees Senator Clinton as particularly susceptible to influence; nothing about her other than gender stereotypes seems to bear this out. I think he sees a husband as particularly influential; much more so than a father, or a mentor, or a close friend. I think that, also, is more evidenced by stereotype than fact. The idea that we would have a co-Presidency seems odd to me, too, although of course there’s no question that Bill Clinton has the potential of being as influential and attention-getting as, say, Karl Rove or Eleanor Roosevelt. And of course it is in some sense regrettable that Senator Clinton, her candidacy and her (putative) presidency may be overshadowed by one of the towering political figures of our generation. And it is in another sense regrettable that the former President is caught up in electoral politics again. On the other hand, it was regrettable that Our Only President rode his family into political office, and that his father rode his family into political office; once in office, though, they were their own men (not to say women), for whatever that was worth.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

6 thoughts on “fathers and husbands, in a house that is white

  1. irilyth

    (The “sign in with your LJ username” feature still doesn’t work for me.)

    I think that a spouse has vastly more influence than a parent, at least in most circumstances where (a) you live with your spouse, and thus spend huge amounts of time with them, from the casual to the extremely serious; and (b) you don’t live with your parents, and only seem them weekly, monthly, or even less frequently.

    In a subtle psychological sense, your parents might have more influence on what kind of a person you are than your spouse does; but in the sense of who has a more direct and immediate influence on your day-to-day thinking and decision-making, it seems very likely to me that for most people, it’ll be their spouse.

    That’s not to say that I agree with anything else Garry Willis is arguing here; just talking about the relative influence the Clintons have on each other as opposed to the Bushes. Whether it’s a good or a bad thing to have a strong co-President seems like a whole other problem (and not particularly like a Constitutional crisis to me, either way).

  2. irilyth

    I have in fact gone on to read the Garry Willis column, and his arguments seem like nonsense to me. Two in particular:

    “How, for instance, would Congress decide which part of the executive should be impeached in case of high crimes and misdemeanors? One member of the plural executive could hide behind the other members.” Well, you’d presumably impeach the one who committed the high crimes and misdemeanors. I suppose that the three of them could commit a crime together, and then have one of them take the fall for it when they were caught, but this doesn’t seem any different than if a unitary President commits a crime with his subordinates, and has them take the fall for it.

    “One man will be more responsible than three. Three will contend among themselves till one becomes the master of his colleagues.” In other words, if you try to create a co-Presidency, it won’t work — you’ll end up with one person being the dominant President… Thus solving your problem, if your goal is to avoid a co-Presidency. How is this an argument against allowing a President to share power with a partner (of whatever sort — parent, spouse, VP, whoever) if they want to?

    I am vastly unconvinced.

  3. Vardibidian

    Certainly a spouse has more influence on a variety of things, but in political matters as well as matters of policy, I would think a father would be more likely to cause trouble as well as more likely to hijack the Executive. Or perhaps that’s just my father and my spouse. But my point is that even if the President’s number one adviser is a previous President, why would that be (a) completely unprecedented, and (2) necessarily a Bad Thing? And, in fact, many of us more or less expected the Previous Bush to be very influential in this administration, which was not particularly the case. People surprise us. For good or ill.


    Oh, and Wills, not Willis, who is someone else.

  4. hapa

    i have a long list of people i don’t want to see elected. former actors. former CIA directors. former investment bankers (lookin’ at you, chelsea). fundamentalist anythings. former spouse? sure, tack it on. plenty of fish in the sea.

  5. Michael

    The co-president canard was used heavily against the Clintons during the 1992 election. It was a staple of Rush Limbaugh’s radio program. It was equally sexist then, though with a slightly different spin (fear of an intelligent woman close to power vs. assumption that a husband will dominate his wife).

  6. Matt

    I haven’t read Wills’ piece, because it seems from your characterization to be puckey, not from a bull, necessarily, but perhaps from a horse.

    At any rate, what’s a co-President? There isn’t one. It’s a straw man, innit? If Sen Clinton is elected, Bill will presumably be her husband and her advisor, if only unofficially, but the Clinton in the second part would be the President, right? No co-President office is being talked about by anyone who can actually create such an office.

    So Bill can’t be impeached. Who cares? He’s not the President anymore. Let him get his oral sex where he wills, or are we suggesting he might do something that’s less titillating and more, say, un-Constitutional?

    Okay, I’m getting steamed again. Going away, now.



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