For most of American history, our vice presidents received little attention and were given no real responsibilities. Theodore Roosevelt did not even have a vice president for his first term in office, and several 19th century presidents never got around to filling the position at all. It wasn’t until Walter Mondale took the job under President Jimmy Carter that the second-ranking official in government was entrusted with identifiable duties.
Similarly, the spouses of presidents in this country have generally maintained low profiles on public policy matters, preferring to offer their advice to their husbands in private. Eleanor Roosevelt was the first and most obvious exception, and Hillary Clinton famously took on a historic role in her husband’s health-care agenda, with mixed results. But since then, first ladies have been content to limit their public roles to decidedly non-controversial matters.
The wives of vice presidents have been even less noticeable. Tipper Gore and Lynn Cheney were both lightning rods for their work on polarizing issues during their husbands’ tenures, but the undoubtedly laudable projects that Barbara Bush or Jill Biden took on before their husbands were promoted, or to which Muriel Humphrey, Marilyn Quayle or Karen Pence devoted themselves, were largely overlooked.
But for the first time, our country has a second gentleman, and for reasons having nothing to do with his gender, it appears that Doug Emhoff is breaking new ground in a position that has previously received little attention from the nation’s political ruling class, news media and voters. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. In addition to the history he has made as the first male spouse in this role, Emhoff is also the first Jewish spouse of either a president or a vice president. As such, he has chosen to prioritize the fight against antisemitism as his signature issue, stepping into an urgent and contentious debate that has taken on greater political relevance given the unacceptable level of rhetoric and violence against Jews in this country and elsewhere around the world.
Last month, Emhoff hosted a high-profile White House event designed to draw public attention to the dramatic spike in the number of antisemitic incidents that have occurred in recent years. He has hosted other, less visible meetings and strategy sessions, has written on the topic, and has spent time privately with survivors of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue attack. Later this month, he will visit Germany and Poland to speak out against antisemitism in countries where the worst atrocities of the Holocaust occurred in order to raise the issue to a global audience.
Emhoff is also taking on more traditional roles for someone in his position. He is teaching a course at Georgetown Law School and has become involved in various legal aid efforts, recently hosting a roundtable with Attorney General Merrick Garland on the subject. He has also embraced the ceremonial aspects of his religious heritage, hosting a Hanukkah celebration and virtual Seder and hanging a mezuzah on the door of the U.S. Naval Observatory, the vice president’s official residence.
But as acts of antisemitism have continued to rise, Emhoff’s profile as the Biden administration’s most visible surrogate on this issue has drawn far more public and media notice. Late last year, Biden established an interagency task force to combat antisemitism and Islamophobia that will be led by National Security Council and Domestic Policy Council staff. And there has been talk of establishing a domestic counterpart to Deborah Lipstadt, the Biden administration’s special envoy on antisemitism to highlight the challenge in this country.
But Emhoff’s role is different. He is not a government employee or a trained academic expert in this field. By his own admission, he is not even a particularly devout Jew. But he cares enough about his heritage, our culture and our religion to devote his time and energy to making sure that the ongoing fight against antisemitism receives the attention it deserves. If nothing else, that is an admirable example for the rest of us and represents an important step toward defeating this menace and its sponsors.
Dan Schnur is a professor at the University of California Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine.
This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal.