Bill Clinton: What it feels like for a dude

Bubba feels Todd Palin's pain.

Published September 24, 2008 8:30PM (EDT)

Interviewed on FOX News Wednesday, Bill Clinton, former president and the closest we've ever gotten to a First Gentleman, was asked by Greta Van Susteren about the "interesting position" occupied by Sarah Palin's husband Todd.

"When you break these gender roles there are all these subconscious expectations," he said.

"I think the trick is, if you're a husband and the woman is in the political role traditionally identified with men," said Clinton, "the trick is to give support that is unambiguous and clear and to also be there with advice privately, but to do it in a way that doesn’t, in a funny way, make her look weak."

Is it me, or does Clinton make the act of being the partner of a powerful woman sound about as easy as parking on the edge of the Grand Canyon? Easy … easy...a little to the no no, a touch the left...stop!...don’t make her look weak!

"Whenever you start changing the deck chairs and gender roles and family roles," said Clinton, “you have to be prepared for psychological as well as political sparks to fly, and my advice to [Todd Palin] is to keep that smile, don’t get defensive."

Clinton also tossed off some high-test admiration for Palin's snow-machine racing feats, noting, "He must have something going if he can finish that 500 mile race with a broken arm! I can’t get over it, but I like it a lot!"

Clinton also called himself "sympathetic" to Todd as "he’s navigating through this campaign...because I’ve been there in this election and been there with Hillary since 2000, when Hillary first ran [for Senate]." Clinton said he has found that "it's very interesting, the different challenges of being a spouse," and opined that people have been too hard on Todd for getting angry at those who attack his wife. "I took my own share of criticism there," said Clinton, in one of the year’s greatest understatements, adding, "I think it's emotionally much much harder to be the spouse of a candidate or an office holder than it is to do the job."

There has been a good deal of ink spilled recently on the perception that Bill is perhaps a bit -- oh, what is le mot juste? -- tepid? lukewarm? No, flaccid in his support for Barack Obama. Granted, it was just a wee bit undermine-y for Clinton to describe how Obama "won all these little caucuses in February" in his re-telling of primary season on "The View," and Chris Rock was gut-bustingly funny on Letterman the other night, but it's also important to remember that it is not so much Bill Clinton's job to get Barack Obama elected as it is Barack Obama's job. But all this aside, Clinton's many critics will jump on him hard for issuing such back-slapping support for the husband of the Republican vice-presidential candidate.

But whether you think Sarah Palin a feminine folk hero of our time, or a moose-hunting hose beast sent to us from an ice-cap-free future, you have to acknowledge that her candidacy is historic, and that therefore her husband's role is also historic. I really wish that weren't how it is. I wish we'd had hundreds of women vice-presidential candidates and hundreds of male (and female for that matter) partners who supported and campaigned for those candidates without breaking out into hives, or growing extra boobs or whatever, so that the American public and pundits and Broadsheet could stop considering the unique conditions brought about by reversed gender roles and start talking about what a snow machine champion is doing sitting in on Alaska budget meetings. But alas, that’s not how it is.

Like it or not, Bill Clinton and Todd Palin have shared unusual -- unique, even -- experiences during this election, and Clinton's imaginative step into the First Dude's snow shoes is not only allowed, but a relatively valuable contribution to the changing way we talk about gender and politics in 2008.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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