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Doug Emhoff is America's first second gentleman. In Paris, he showed what that means

Nov 14, 2021
Originally published on November 14, 2021 2:55 pm

It was a light-hearted moment at the end of the first diplomatic trip abroad for Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff.

Before she got on Air Force Two to return to Washington, Harris, who loves to cook, made a quick stop at E. Dehillerin, the iconic purveyor of cookware.

"I am looking around, but I want to buy a pot," Harris told the pool of reporters in tow, as she gazed up at rows and rows of copper pots hanging from pegboard, and Emhoff awkwardly stood by.

One asked whether the second gentleman is a good cook. "He's an apprentice," Harris said, chuckling. "She taught me during COVID," Emhoff said, "out of necessity after almost burning down our apartment, then I got a little bit better."

This was one of many examples where Emhoff, on his first diplomatic trip abroad with the vice president, showed how he is taking a very traditional approach to the unpaid and unheralded role as second spouse — and yet using it to send a message about gender equity, which he has chosen as a key priority.

Emhoff stays in the mold of dutiful political spouse

As Harris visited the Surenes American Cemetery to pay tribute to Americans who died in World War I and II, she peppered the tour guide with questions. Decorum dictated that it was the vice president's moment. Emhoff stood by, quiet, occasionally touching a grave marker with respect.

As America's first second gentleman, Emhoff is "following the usual patterns, playing the part of the dutiful political spouse — very supportive," said Katherine Jellison, a professor of women and gender history at Ohio University.

Americans still see Emhoff as a bit of a novelty, and wonder what he would be like as first spouse if Harris one day runs for office and wins, she said. For Europeans, he is less of a curiosity.

"For Europeans, they've seen male spouses of high-ranking officials, including heads of state, much more so than is the case here in the U.S.," Jellison said.

On the Paris trip, Emhoff had the traditional visit with French first lady Brigitte Macron, touring an art gallery. And he escorted Harris to a dinner for world leaders at the Élysée palace.

But one thing that's different for Emhoff from the second spouses who have gone before him: there's a distinct lack of curiosity about what he wears, Jellison said.

Keith Stadler, the superintendent of the Suresnes American Cemetery, speaks with Vice President Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, on Nov. 10.
Sarahbeth Maney / The New York Times via AP, Pool
Vice President Harris and her husband Douglas Emhoff arrive for a dinner at the Elysee Palace as part of the Paris Peace Forum.
Michel Euler / AP

Emhoff has his own platform, too

Emhoff, an entertainment lawyer by trade, is teaching a law class at Georgetown University. But he spends most of his time promoting the administration's priorities, including COVID-19 vaccines. He has visited 30 states since January.

In Paris, while Harris' days were spent mainly in closed-door diplomatic meetings, Emhoff had more of an outward-facing cultural exchange.

In France, as Harris wrapped up a press conference and rushed off in a motorcade to discuss developments in Libya with a group of world leaders, Emhoff visited a culinary institute and met with students learning to cook and bake — a striking reversal of gender roles.

Second gentleman Doug Emhoff meets with interns during a visit to a culinary school in Paris on Nov. 12.
Bertrand Guay / AFP via Getty Images

A day earlier, Emhoff held a listening session on gender equity while Harris was at the Paris Peace Forum, where she gave an address focused on growing inequality around the world.

"One of things I've learned from being married to Kamala Harris is that to be first in so many things is hard. She said once that breaking barriers involves breaking, and when you break something sometimes you get cut, and when you get cut, sometimes you bleed... But it's worth it," he said at the end of his event.

Emhoff said he thinks men need to do more to support women, something he said he's always done "on the regular" as "the right thing to do."

"Men need to step up and be part of the solution and not be part of the problem," he said. "I'm going to do everything I can in this role to keep on messaging that."

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Douglas Emhoff at a listening session on gender equity in Paris. He said part of his role is sending a message on how men can support women. "Men need to step up and be part of the solution," he said.
Thomas Samson / AFP via Getty Images

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When Vice President Kamala Harris flew to France last week, her husband, Doug Emhoff, was at her side. It was their first diplomatic trip abroad as a couple. And it was the first time the world saw a second gentleman from the United States accompany his wife to Europe. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid has this report.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Most of the vice president's trip was focused on diplomatic business. But she did take time out Saturday morning to swing by this iconic Parisian cookware shop.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: I am...

DOUG EMHOFF: Pot.

HARRIS: ...Looking around. But yeah, I want to buy a pot.

KHALID: Harris is known is a cooking aficionado. As she gazed at the rows and rows of copper pots, Emhoff stood awkwardly to the side. A journalist asked her if the second gentleman is a good cook.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: He's an apprentice.

(LAUGHTER)

EMHOFF: She...

HARRIS: COVID...

EMHOFF: She taught me during COVID.

HARRIS: Yeah. I realized I could not...

EMHOFF: Out of...

HARRIS: ...Cook three meals...

EMHOFF: Out of necessity.

HARRIS: ...A day.

EMHOFF: After almost burning down our apartment, then I got a little bit better.

KHALID: It was just a small moment but one that indicated how Emhoff has been taking a conventional approach to his new job while symbolically sending a message about gender equity. Katherine Jellison at Ohio University has researched political spouses. And she says America's first second gentleman is largely doing what's traditionally done amongst second spouses.

KATHERINE JELLISON: Following the usual patterns, playing the part of the dutiful political spouse, very supportive.

KHALID: But, she says, there's one big difference.

JELLISON: People aren't very focused on his wardrobe. In his case, what color tie will he wear? - that kind of thing.

KHALID: And indeed, when they walked into dinner at the Elysee Palace, no one was photographing Emhoff for his sartorial choices. But when Harris was busy speaking on the world stage or dealing with diplomatic meetings behind closed doors, Emhoff was on a cultural mission. On Friday, as Harris wrapped up a press conference and rushed off in a motorcade to discuss developments in Libya with a group of world leaders, Emhoff visited a culinary institute and met with students learning to cook and bake. It was a striking reversal of gender roles. Back in July, this former high-powered entertainment lawyer was asked if it's been difficult for him to embrace his new role.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EMHOFF: So when I had the honor of being in this role because this country elected the first woman vice president, whose name is Kamala Harris, who happens to be my wife, I did embrace it. And I just raised my hand. And I said, where do you need me? I'm going to go where I'm needed and where I can help.

KHALID: He was visiting a mobile vaccination clinic in Louisiana on that trip.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EMHOFF: And on the COVID piece, on these vaccinations, I'm not going to stop. This administration's not going to stop until we continue to get the word out.

KHALID: Emhoff has visited 30 states since January, often focusing on vaccines. He told NBC he wants to set an example.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EMHOFF: Men have to step up and step up for the people that they love and actually show it.

KHALID: It's a line, he reiterated in Paris and said he's going to use this role to keep on spreading that message. Asma Khalid, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SALT-N-PEPPA AND EN VOGUE SONG, "WHATTA MAN")

MARTIN: By the way, you can always hear more from Asma Khalid and the rest of the NPR politics team. Just tune into the NPR Politics Podcast, where our reporters and editors break down the latest news out of Washington and explain why it matters. You can find it wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.