Second gentleman Doug Emhoff wants to change what it means to be the “Second Spouse” – or, for that matter, the supportive partner of any woman in America.
“I want to be in a world where this is not unique,” said Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris.
“It should not even be a big deal that I’m a man, going forward,” he told CNN’s Dana Bash, in an interview for her special series, “Being … The Second Gentleman,” which airs at 8 pm ET on Saturday .
“I’m here because I’m her husband. I’m here to support her,” he said.
Emhoff is, of course, nodding to the elephant in the room: He is a man in a role that has, up until the Biden-Harris administration, always been a held by a woman.
Almost two years into the position, though Emhoff accepts it is a badge of honor, he clearly does not want to embrace the stereotype that has long defined it, bristling slightly when asked by Bash whether he does the traditional activities a woman in his place may be expected to do, like picking out china patterns or doing the party-planning.
“Things like that, we’ll do together, my wife and I, the vice president,” said Emhoff, changing the subject to the work he actually does, such as fanning out across the country, listening on behalf of the administration to bring back to Washington insight on the issues facing the American people.
Emhoff has visited more than 40 states as second spouse and been an emissary on three solo trips abroad.
“Hasn’t been a lot of time for the ceremonial part,” he said.
Emhoff shared there is a library at the vice president’s official residence that has dozens of biographies about former vice presidents, books written by former vice presidents and historical books about the office of the vice presidency itself. Emhoff and Harris’ favorite book in the library is the one titled, “Vice Presidents and Second Ladies.”
The couple like to say, “We’re going to need a new a book.” Asked what the title of that new book would be, Emhoff is adamant he does not think it should have anything to do with gender.
Since Abigail Adams in 1789, the role of second spouse of American vice presidents has always been held by a woman, whose traditional spot was behind-the-scenes – playing hostess, entertaining, being a doting wife.
It wasn’t until Patricia Nixon became second lady in 1953 that the second lady started to create her own agenda, making trips to message on behalf of her husband, defining areas of focused interest and pushing beyond the notion she was merely an accessory to the man she stood beside. In 1978, the federal government approved the allocation of a budget for the second lady, enough to provide a small support staff, in a suite of offices in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where Emhoff works today.
But what, exactly, is the job of a second spouse? Emhoff is clear in his answer: his primary role is that of support for his wife.
His brand of modern-marital equality is less and less unique, as the boundaries of cultural norms shift. But the fact that in 2021, when Emhoff’s wife took office, a man assuming the role of second spouse still had people surprised shows the slow change in American culture around the romanticized notions of politicians and gender roles. Emhoff is asked if he feels at all emasculated by the concept of being a husband in a supporting role.
“I have a very healthy ego,” he said, noting that being married to Harris and giving up his job in Los Angeles as an entertainment attorney to move to Washington, DC, in order to do that, doesn’t necessarily mean his ego has to take a backseat.
“It’s not about you. I’ll be on, I’ll be giving speeches, and one of the things I say is, ‘Men need to support women.’ One, it’s the right thing to do, and then, men, OK, you need to actually do it.”
Emhoff acknowledged he proactively thinks about destigmatizing the reversal of the traditional spousal power dynamic, and that he is very cognizant that he has a public opportunity to show how that works, and that it can succeed.
“Now that I’m in the role, and you really see not all men naturally would do this, and would push back, and there’s this, this, toxicity, this, this, this masculine idea of what a man is that’s out there that’s not correct… it’s something I just want to push back on,” he said.
Emhoff learned early on from his own father that masculinity has nothing to do with the power and profile of a job – his dad, Emhoff’s role model, was a women’s shoe designer in New Jersey.
“Masculinity is loving your family, caring about your family, and being there for your family,” said Emhoff. “We’re kind of mixing up this concept that if somehow a man shows kindness or empathy or consideration for others, that somehow not masculine, and that is just not OK, that is just not true.”
Emhoff has also had to literally adjust to the day-to-day of being second gentleman. Beyond coping with the ideological newness of his role, he has learned to live inside the gates of the United States Naval Observatory, where since 1977, vice presidents have lived in a mansion on the grounds.
The home does afford more privacy than the White House – mature trees cover the acres of grass and gardens, allowing more normalcy for inhabitants and fewer curious tourists trying to catch a glimpse.
Emhoff likes to walk outside, something he does with regularity and relative solitude, but if he steps beyond the gates, a Secret Service detail quickly joins. The security of a second spouse has intensified in recent years, even since the days of Tipper Gore, the wife of Al Gore, who occasionally used to slip out of the property with her social secretary to enjoy a bite to eat at a favorite neighborhood restaurant , or even make a stealth visit to a musical concert. She was constantly told by other attendees that she “looked a lot like Tipper Gore,” never letting on that indeed she was Tipper Gore.
Those easier times, however, are over, and the residence and grounds are where typically where Emhoff and Harris try to steal time for themselves, a tip learned from their recent predecessors. (Emhoff showed Bash a swing he likes that hangs from a tree on the property, next to a plaque that reads: “Joe loves Jill.”)
Karen Pence also prepped Emhoff, he said, giving him the non-intuitive lowdown on things like paying the bills and figuring out how food gets onto the property and into their pantry.
“Just the basics of everyday life,” said Emhoff of his helpful conversation with Pence.
In addition to being the first second gentleman, Emhoff is the first Jewish spouse of an American president or vice president, a “first” he does not take lightly. He talked about the special mezuzah on the outside of the door into the residence, one that he and Harris found and sourced from a temple in Atlanta where Martin Luther King once preached.
Emhoff remains close to his two adult children, 23-year-old Ella, a model and designer, and 28-year-old Cole, who is working in Hollywood. (Jazz fans, Emhoff and his ex-wife, Kerstin Emhoff, named their kids after Ella Fitzgerald and John Coltrane, respectively.)
Emhoff said the end of his first marriage, in 2008, reinforced for him the importance of being a good father, and always putting his children first. He flipped his hand over to show Bash the inside of his wrist, which has two sets of tattooed initials, one for his son, and one for his daughter.
“It’s a visceral reminder of them,” Emhoff said of the initial tattoos, which he got shortly after he and his first wife split up.
Emhoff admitted he does have other ink, but it is too private for him to share.
“It’s personal. To the VP and I,” said Emhoff. “It has to do the year we were born,” is his only clue. Both Emhoff and Harris were born in 1964, their birthdays just seven days apart.
Harris calls Emhoff “Dougie,” or “My Dougie,” even when the two are in public. They have a close relationship, and a loving marriage, lately filled with stories of people Emhoff or she have met, or places and states he has visited on behalf of the administration, together constantly evolving in this new, unanticipated role. Emhoff said he is still shocked and surprised that “a kid from central Jersey playing Little League” is in the place he finds himself today, married to the first Black and South Asian vice president of the United States, and all the craziness that comes with it.
“The constant is I’m here for her. And that will never change.”
Bash asked Emhoff how he would feel about living in the bigger executive mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, less than three miles from their current residence. After all, 12 second ladies went on to become first lady – how would Emhoff like to break that mold, too?