If elected, Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Graham would be the first life-long bachelor to occupy the White House since James Buchanan. Only one other president — Grover Cleveland — has ever been elected president without being married at some point during his life (Cleveland later married while in office). The issue has been plaguing Graham throughout his campaign thus far, as the role of First Lady has been inextricably tied to the presidency in recent history.
During an interview with the Daily Mail, however, Graham seemed unfazed by his bachelor status. When asked who would be his First Lady, he replied, “Well, I’ve got a sister, she could play that role if necessary … I’ve got a lot of friends. We’ll have a rotating first lady.” Graham’s comments were made mostly in jest, and he appeared to be poking fun at the idea that a First Lady would be a requirement for the position. By his logic, the individual running for office matters much more than the man or woman by his or her side.
The question, however, is not entirely baseless. Buchanan’s niece, Harriet Lane Johnston, served as First Lady during his presidency. Cleveland’s unmarried sister Rose Elizabeth Cleveland served as First Lady until he got married. There are other examples of daughters or relatives who have served as First Lady following the wife of a president’s death.
In 2016, the role of First Lady is beginning to seem less important. If Hillary Clinton (herself a former First Lady) is elected, former President Bill Clinton would become the nation’s first First Gentleman. It’s likely that Bill (or whoever ultimately ends up in this position) would set the precedent for how a First Gentleman would conduct himself, but it also calls to attention the idea that there are no specific guidelines for how a president’s spouse should act. First Lady is an unofficial title, although throughout recent history presidential spouses have typically focused on one national campaign, among other oft-replicated duties.
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As much as the family unit is idealized by American voters, there’s no real reason that a president needs to be married. In fact, family could be a distraction for such a demanding position. In an interview with the Washington Post, Graham’s sister Darline Graham Nordone argued her brother might not be pursuing the office if he had a spouse. “If he had a wife and family, he would be really torn,” Nordone said. “He wouldn’t want to sacrifice his family’s happiness for the job. I’ve always had him, but who did he have? Breaks my heart.”
While Nordone’s heart is broken by Graham’s lack of companionship, the reality is that nearly half of all marriages in the U.S. end up failing. According to the American Psychological Association, more than 90 percent of individuals in Western cultures marry by age 50. In the United States, 40 to 50 percent of those individuals divorce. Exact statistics are hard to pin down and divorce rates have actually been on a slight decline in recent years (after skyrocketing in the 1970s), but it is still generally true that almost half of all marriages end up failing.
If that’s the reality of American life, then why do we expect our president to remain happily married to his or her spouse? It’s nothing more than an attempt to maintain the idealized version of the American family, a concept which is quickly fading anyways. Everyone understands that presidents like Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy weren’t exactly faithful to their spouses, yet we still clung onto the idea that each of them had a First Lady. In 2016, that won't make as much sense. Lindsay Graham shouldn’t be elected president for a variety of reasons — his hawkish foreign policy towards the top of that list — but the fact that he’s never been married shouldn’t matter at all.
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