WASHINGTON (AP) — As America’s first second gentleman, Doug Emhoff has attended a U.S. naturalization ceremony in New York, served spaghetti and chocolate milk to children at a YMCA near New Orleans, and reminisced with second-graders in Detroit about an early job at McDonald’s .
Emhoff visited 31 states over the past year, meeting with physicians, parents, community leaders and small business owners everywhere from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Allentown, Pennsylvania. But perhaps the most important part of such trips is getting home in time for dinner, when his wife, Vice President Kamala Harris, throws out that evergreen conversation-starter, “How was your day?”
“It gets me to really talk about the people I meet,” Emhoff told The Associated Press. He added that when he’s “really with the President, the First Lady, or a Cabinet Secretary — or one of their bosses — you can really bring back specifics and turn that into a reaction or an action.”
After Emhoff met BB Beltran, an advocate for domestic violence survivors, during a visit to Oregon in April, she was later invited to participate in a federal roundtable on how the government can better support legal aid initiatives.
“I felt supported and validated by Mr. Emhoff,” said Beltran, executive director of Sexual Assault Support Services in Eugene, Oregon.
Emhoff, 57, sees himself as the link between Americans and President Joe Biden’s White House. His training as a lawyer, he says, taught him “to listen instead of talking and really try to understand problems, to understand people and to understand a problem”.
It’s meant to take a role that was largely ceremonial – the ‘seconds’ rarely get much attention – and make it more substantive by trying to give government a boost from a non-politician’s perspective.
Being a liaison between administration and the public is a quiet, powerful role often played by first ladies. Kate Andersen Brower, who has written books on the president’s spouses and the vice presidency, said that during the Iran hostage crisis in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter was halting his campaign for re-election, his wife Rosalynn was traveling around the country in his stead and “People would come up to her all the time and tell her their problems.”
Andersen Brower noted that Hillary Clinton urged her husband, President Bill Clinton, to nominate Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the Supreme Court after Betty Ford unsuccessfully urged her husband, President Gerald Ford, to elect a woman for the Supreme Court . Nancy Reagan helped control access to President Ronald Reagan and influenced personnel decisions.
Sometimes second ladies have joined the action. Pat Nixon helped organize schedules for her husband, President Richard Nixon, and contributed to speeches when he was Vice President. Barbara Bush traveled more than a million miles outside of Washington reporting to then-Vice President George HW Bush.
“People always talk about pillow talk,” said Andersen Brower. “That’s another side of it – to see a man play that role.”
Emhoff says he understands that “I wouldn’t be here if the country hadn’t elected its first woman vice president.” And he emphasizes that men need to “step up” and be more supportive of their spouses’ careers.
“So many women have had to unfairly take a step back in the workplace because of COVID,” Emhoff said. He said he “wanted to not just talk about it, but hopefully set an example for someone who has retired from their main career to support my wife.”
Emhoff, who was born in Brooklyn and raised in New Jersey, was a Los Angeles-based attorney specializing in entertainment and intellectual property law and earned nearly $3 million in 2019 before leaving his pre-Inauguration Day job gave up. He and Harris have two adult children from Emhoff’s previous marriage, and the second gentleman now teaches at Georgetown Law School.
Emhoff said that nearly a year in office taught him that “the role that I have is more of that of a generalist, where I’ll just go where it’s needed.”
He has traveled to COVID-19 vaccination clinics the most, visiting more than 20. During a March trip to Mary’s Center, a community health facility in Silver Spring, Maryland, outside of Washington, he reassured a woman who was nervous about the vaccination by speaking to her briefly in Spanish and smiling broadly from behind his mask.
Emhoff was “interested in the process. You could tell it wasn’t just for show,” said Dr. Tollie Elliott, CEO of the center.
“It’s just really nice to see when you meet people in these spaces that they’re human, that they’re real and not just there for a picture or for political gain,” Elliott said.
Emhoff has also been active in combating misinformation about the coronavirus vaccine after hearing Americans tell him falsehoods.
“It wasn’t exactly political. They were people of all stripes who came back to me with pure misinformation,” Emhoff said. He said he approaches countering untruths like preparing for legal cases.
Emhoff says he’s seen misinformation about vaccines evolve from misconceptions about cost and availability to claims focused on vaccines causing health problems, though “a year of data” now refutes that. The most persistent misinformation is people who believe COVID-19 vaccines were developed too quickly to be effective, despite coming from years of research, Emhoff said.
“No,” he said flatly about the untruth, “that’s not the fact.”
US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy praised Emhoff’s fight against misinformation, saying he “understands so deeply the urgency of the issue.”
Just before Christmas, Emhoff, along with Murthy and First Lady Jill Biden, visited a children’s hospital near Waukesha, Wisconsin, where a man drove an SUV into a parade, killing six people. Murthy said Emhoff approaches those moments “where he reflects on his role as a father and as a husband, and then he draws empathy from his identity.”
“You can talk to him like anyone else,” Murthy said.
Emhoff said his dinner conversations with Harris often focus on day-to-day issues, adding that they try to ignore the political criticism the vice president made over things like US-Mexico border policy and the departure of several top advisers was exposed to her office.
“She doesn’t care,” Emhoff said of his wife. The couple’s biggest nighttime challenge, he said, is sometimes deciding what to watch on Netflix — especially when there are so many decisions they never actually make one.
Emhoff said the couple will finally think, “We should look at this.”
“And then we realize it’s getting late, and we’ve had a long day, and we’ve got a big day tomorrow,” he said, “and we just don’t look.”