There may be no one in Washington, D.C. who talks about his wife as much Doug Emhoff. No doubt he loves her very much. But being an outwardly supportive spouse also happens to be his job. Doug Emhoff's wife is Vice President Kamala Harris, which makes him the Second Gentleman.
And what a strange job that is. It's one that First and Second Ladies have done since 1789, but no man attempted until 2021. Even the greatest fictional portrayal of a vice president in history (I'm talking, of course, of HBO's Veep) sidestepped the subject by having Julia Louis Dreyfus's Selina Meyer be divorced. Emhoff, however, seems totally at ease in the job—and, it must be said, eager for a second term as the nation's highest ranking Wife Guy.
I spoke with Emhoff about what he's learned from three years in his role, and what it means to support the Vice President not just in word but in deed. Our conversation happened a few days before what would have been the 51st anniversary of Roe v. Wade. That landmark decision, which legalized abortion, was handed down on January 22, 1973. But it is no longer the law of the land. And Emhoff was eager to discuss the consequences of that.
Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe with Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, in June 2022, it has become clear that Americans want the right to abortion back; in every state that had a law strengthening access to abortion on the ballot in 2023, voters turned out and voted to approve it. That suggests Biden-Harris campaign is right to make the 2024 election about abortion access—or as politicians and their spouses tend to call it, “reproductive freedom.” Based on our conversation, it's an issue that the Second Gentleman is genuinely passionate about.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Esquire: America's first Second Gentleman is quite a mouthful. Why don't we start with you telling us what your job is.
Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff: First and foremost it's husband and father, and that hasn't changed. I really see it first as to support her in any way I can, as a husband. That's the lens in which I approach it and on the actual job, it's also supporting her—not as my spouse but as Vice President, and what can I do as Second Gentleman to uplift the Vice President, the President, and the administration? That can take various forms, whether it's speaking out against antisemitism and hate, speaking in favor of gender equity, access to legal justice and some of the other more substantive areas that I've taken on. Otherwise it's just doing what's asked. I'm traveling to Davos tomorrow, for instance, so it's a mixed bag. But it's all geared towards one, supporting her as her husband and then, supporting her and the administration as Second Gentleman.
What's the difference between supporting her and supporting the administration?
She's the Vice President of the United States, first woman to ever hold this role, and I'm her husband. So, how can I be a better husband? How can I help her get through her day so she can do her job, which is 24/7, 365? A lot of what she does is public, but a lot of what she does is also very hard work behind the scenes. So, again, it's how can I be helpful to her, make her day easier, take things off her plate around the house so she can fulfill these intense duties that she has?
For most men, supporting a spouse, taking on the work of care in the house like you mentioned, is not something they're just born knowing how to do—it's a skill. How have you built up that skill?
I've always tried to do what I can around the house, knowing that since we've been together we've both been busy professionals. So, when we met I was an entertainment lawyer, she was Attorney General, both with big jobs. So it's just a question of fairness, since we're both working hard. I pull my weigh as much as I can. I'd say being together during Covid also helped, because we had to help each other. It was just us during those horrible months. It was clearly not fair. She had to cook every meal and do everything around our place.
She would cook every meal during Covid?
No, I really learned how to cook. The excuse wasn't hey let's eat less it was I'll cook more so we can get through it together. So coming right out of Covid right onto the campaign, and into this role it was—as horrible as Covid was for all of us, clearly—it did kind of balance out the portfolio around the home. And I've kept that going while she's Vice President and doing whatever I can to help her out around here so she can do her job.
I would imagine that your current household probably doesn't look a lot like most of our readers' households. You probably have a lot of help, right?
There's a staff here, yeah. It's the Vice President's residence and there is a staff at the home.
Most of our readers don't have Secret Service agents around their apartments, either. How does that affect the dynamic between you and the Vice President?
Even though she was Attorney General when we met, then a U.S. Senator, there still is, even with those positions, a pretty high level of privacy in going about your day without having a staff round you and having Secret Service. Having the Vice President's Staff, the Second Gentleman's staff, you're constantly surrounded by folks, so you go from a very private life as a couple and a family to a very public life. For me, not having been in elected office and not really being a part of politics, and working for a time as an entertainment lawyer, I'd say that was a big transition. And sometimes you still look around and you may think Oh, everything's kind of normal, and then you look out and there's fifty people outside. It's a real reminder that you're never quite alone.
I bet. I want to go back to what you said about supporting the Vice President. You once said "Don't just say you're being supportive, be supportive." Can you elaborate? What does it mean to actually be supportive?
I'm really trying to think of ways to not only take things off her plate but do take things off her plate—literally from our schedule, taking a bigger part on if we've got to do things in our private life, and dealing with our home in Los Angeles. You know, life goes on. Rather than waiting around for her to do it, I'm really proactive on trying to identify things that need to be done in our personal lives and not asking, just doing them, and doing my best and if there are things she disagrees with or I should have done it a different way, then that's an easier conversation than why didn't you do this? I'm busy being Vice President, I need you to help me, help us as a family, as a couple deal with these other things.
And it could be simple things. Like, in the morning I wait to do certain things because when she's getting out of the house she's got a lot of briefing materials. There's a lot of stuff happening every morning as Vice President, so I try to work my day around making sure she gets out of the house before I do so I can be around to help her with whatever needs to get done to make it easier for her to get ready and have her stuff, and get out the door. It just makes it easier for her.
At night it's more like if I know something is happening in the news, we don't just start talking about politics. It's hey, we're gonna have dinner at this time and what can I do to ease the transition from a very busy day into let's have a half hour together, an hour together as a couple.
You must talk about policy together sometimes. How does that go when you do?
We really try not to unless we just have to, because we're living it. I have a full team, she has a full team. I have a schedule, she has a schedule. I prep and she's prepping. We have a lot of responsibility right now. Especially her, especially with the election coming up. That's the time when we're together. Especially at night, it's more about reconnecting as a couple, talking about our kids talking about family and things like that. We need a little bit of separation, so yeah sometimes we have things to talk about and we will. It's just like all we do is talk about politics and policy. We've got to have some couple time.
We've been talking a lot about the personal aspects of what it means to be supportive of strong, powerful women. Where does the more public aspect come in? You've said in the past that you don't want to be last Second Gentleman. What else do we need for there to be more women in important places? And what can men do to support that. I'm asking in particular about things like abortion, healthcare, paid family leave.
There's a lot to unpack there in that question. I think definitely the things you mentioned—especially family leave, childcare, reproductive freedom, the ability to be supported. So a woman can achieve the goals that they set out in a way that's fair and equitable. For me, it would be making sure that if we're both busy professionals and we're both setting goals and we both want things in our careers and to achieve, that there's a balance in allowing both of us to achieve those goals. For us, as a couple, it really came down to, with this opportunity to become the first woman Vice President, something that's never been done before would necessitate me having the decision of whether or not to step away from my career that I love and worked really hard at for thirty years. I was really successful. And that was a discussion we had as a couple and something I determined was worth doing so we could have a woman Vice President and it could be someone like her who is in favor of all those things: reproductive freedom and protecting rights and achieving more rights and freedoms for people. Have a seat at the table, a woman, and someone who looks like her and someone who's never had a seat at this table to represent the millions of people who are not there? That superceeded my own career. It really made the decision easy to take a step away.
It was intense, because I didn't know what to expect. No one had done this job as Second Gentleman before and a lot of it was how do I find the meaning and the value in this role while supporting her so she can have that role? I've gotten a lot of feedback from so many men who come up to me and women who come up to me, especially those who put themselves out for public office or put themselves up for the promotion, the new job, saying hey, look, this guy did it, this guy was able to take a step back so the woman in his life could take that step forward. When I hear those stories it really makes me feel good.
What's the difference between being a Second Gentleman and Second Lady?
Well, beyond the obvious...[laughs]. I think at core, we've had some amazing Second Ladies who have done incredible work in this role including our First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, and others. I think that the mission has always been the same: to support your spouse who's Vice President and to support the administration. I think being the first man has brought me—whether it's fair or not—attention.
I think also, just, the milieu in which we took office in early 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, right after an insurrection—and let's be clear, it was an insurrection on January 6—and all that Biden and Harris were facing when they took office. I think anyone who is in this role, married to a Vice President taking over during that time, it was all hands on deck. So I just think by the circumstances I was just called on to do a lot.
We're talking on the eve of what would have been the 51st anniversary of Roe v. Wade had it not been overturned in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization. This is a a men's magazine, of course, I'm hoping you can speak to what not just women, but men lost, in Dobbs.
This is just about freedom. It's about families. I look at this issue as a father, as a son, as a husband, and I'm still enraged about this.
I think of my daughter, Ella, who is now 24. I think of my mother, who's 83, and when you think about how my 83 year-old mother is somehow going to have more rights than my 24 year-old daughter, it's just totally unacceptable. I had conversations with both my mother and my daughter right after [Dobbs] and we've continued to have these conversations. I've talked to my son, Cole, about it. He just got married. He hopefully is going to start a family and they have the right, his wife Greenley has the right, to decide how to do their family planning and make decisions without the government making those decisions. They're fortunate, they live in California. But what if they want to move to another state that has restrictions, such as Texas, Florida, and other places that are literally taking freedom away?
So if you're a man, and you're looking at having a family or you have a family, these issues completely impact how you're going live your life. I'm at an age right now where I've got a group of guy friends who all have daughters and some of those daughters are still of college age, and you're thinking about what if your daughter wants to go to college in one of these states like Texas with a ban? What does that mean if you have a son who's gonna go to a college in one of those states? What if something happens? What is the responsibility?
That's why this is an issue for all of us, not just women. This is why I, from the minute the draft opinion came out, I have been speaking up and speaking loudly about the need to restore what women lost, which is protections under Roe v. Wade. It's wrong, it's immoral. You're seeing the horrific stories of how women are suffering, literally suffering, all around the country because of this horrific decision, [and] all while the former president is bragging about it. He's bragging. Just last week, he was bragging about how it was he who was responsible for Roe v. Wade getting overturned. Responsible for the suffering of so many of our fellow citizens because of this. It's immoral. It's wrong and we've gotta all step up: men, women, it's an issue for all of us.
What advice do you have for men who care about this issue and want to work towards getting these freedoms back?
First of all, there should be no stigma at all in talking about it. This is something that, again, affects families. It affects men, women, this is something that we should all talk about. And we know objectively that men care about this, because if you look at the elections—even in places like Kansas—in red states, where it's in the 60s or more than that percentage, which means that men are getting this, and voting for freedoms, for reproductive freedom and freedom to make decisions. That is how I talk about it: no stigma, and then talk about it.
This is something I talk about with my guy friends, I talk about it with my son, I talk about publicly. There's a great group that I've been working with, Men4Choice. I did a roundtable with them. It's a group of men, mostly younger men, even some still in college, who all came to this issue as their issue, to support women and to support freedom. I did an event with them and Planned Parenthood and some other organizations in Florida recently, so there's other groups to get involved with. Reproductive Freedom for All, which used to be NARAL; EMILYs List; National Women's Law Center—I've done events with all of them.
And then most of all, vote. Vote for candidates up and down the ballot—I'm talking local-local, even who's the sheriff in the town—because unfortunately some of these states have laws on the books that literally make it illegal to seek this care, and will hold hospitals and doctors and providers liable criminally. So you gotta go down to the local, local level. Who are the judges? Who's in the state legislature? Who are the Attorneys General, Secretaries of State, and of course, at the federal level, the way to really solve this problem is to codify Roe v. Wade. So we need to have the numbers in Congress to do that and reelect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris because Joe Biden has said very clearly that he will sign legislation to codify Roe v. Wade.
President Biden is famously uncomfortable talking about abortion. Have you and he ever talked about it together?
I'm not going to agree on that characterization. He's been a real champion on promoting women's freedom and reproductive freedom and has said publicly that he would codify Roe v. Wade. This is an issue that the Vice President as you know has taken leadership on and is about to embark on a reproductive freedom tour kicking off shortly in Wisconsin. This is something the whole administration is behind.
I think I'd be remiss if I didn't ask about women outside the United States, and what we owe them. I'm thinking of course about women in conflict zones—Gaza, Ukraine. What do we owe women outside the U.S.?
We need to be leaders here because the world watches what we do here. It's harder for us to talk about violence against women in other countries and reproductive freedom for women in other countries when we don't have that fully available here. So we need to lead for us to have the voice that we need to have. Because the world does pay attention. Personally, every time I travel, just about, I do gender equity events. I'll do be doing one in Davos. I've done them all over the world, from Africa to Asia to Europe. So, for me, I'm going to continue to do my part and speak very loudly and clearly on the need for gender equity writ large, including being against horrific violence against women and making sure that women have the right and the freedom to do what they want to do with their own bodies.
Get our house in order first, in other words?
Well, we need to on a lot of issues. People look to us. It's all these issues of freedom. We need to have more freedom here, reproductive freedom, freedom to vote, freedom to love who you want to love, freedom to be able to read what you want to read, freedom from gun violence, freedom to breathe clean air, freedom just to be. We need to continue that mission here so we can speak with moral force and clarity around the world.
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