View from US: The business of being first gentleman

Published August 14, 2016
The Clintons -Photo courtesy time.com
The Clintons -Photo courtesy time.com

Husbands of prime ministers and presidents either provoke criticism or admiration. If Hillary Clinton becomes the President of the United States and Bill Clinton the First Gentleman, worries about his larger-than-life image overshadowing the Oval Office may arise. Shooing off meddlesome hubbies is often hard, they say.

Such is the irony of life best described as serendipity or happenstance. Had the young president of the Oxford Union, Benazir Bhutto, not introduced her friend and fellow student Theresa Brasier to Philip May at a dance back in 1967, perhaps today he would not be occupying 10 Downing Street as the First Gentleman! The couple’s chemistry clicked; it was love at first sight. While Benazir played the cupid, little did she know that one day her husband too (nowhere on the scene then) would also be the First Gentleman, not once but twice!

Philip May is a banker. This alone can send red flags up across Britain. Fears of exploiting a wife’s position by dabbling in shady business deals are real. To make hay while the sun shines (excuse the cliché) is a temptation few can resist. But for one or two alleged scandals attached to Philip May, an internet search fails to reveal any financial benefit he reaped while his wife was the home minister in David Cameron’s cabinet. Rumours of his working and owning shares at G4S, an international security firm surfaced in some blogs. They were promptly denied by that company. Later, when the same security firm won a hefty contract from the British government, the lawyer who initially proposed the police reforms that resulted in G4S bagging the contract was at the same time an adviser to the firm. A conflict of interest was cited by Theresa May’s critics, which she rejected. The May marriage spans four decades. They have no children. The First Gentleman, it is said, has always taken a back seat and allowed his wife to shine. A colleague at the bank where Philip May is a ‘relationships manager’ says, “Around the office, he is a fairly head-down type of guy. There is a stereotypical investment manager with a big ego — he’s not like that at all. He is fairly quiet, keeps himself to himself. He has very good integrity and never trades off his wife’s name.”


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Unlike Philip May, his predecessor First Gentleman Denis Thatcher was not smitten by his future wife. Nor was she. “Certainly not!” Margaret Thatcher replied when asked if it was love at first sight between the two. Denis admitted he was attracted to her because “She’s got a good pair of legs.” In 1979 when Maggie became the prime minister, he was an unknown retired oil company executive who had “assiduously kept himself in the background.” Earlier he ran a prosperous paint business. It is said that his money helped Margaret become a leading politician, a trajectory that led to the Parliament. “I could never have been prime minister for more than 11 years without Denis by my side,” Thatcher wrote in her autobiography. “He was a fund of shrewd advice and penetrating comment.” His selfless devotion to his wife was widely admired by the British. Margaret’s ultimate adoration for her husband of 50 years is contained in a single line: “He’s my golden thread.” For his sake she changed from a brunette to a blonde when they married, dying her hair till the end. The First Gentleman preferred blondes!

Pakistan’s First Gentleman was Asif Ali Zardari. He too was a businessman (small-time though) when Benazir Bhutto married him in 1987. It was an arranged marriage. “His [Asif’s] only apparent vice, if it could be called that, was a passion for polo,” Benazir is quoted telling a friend. Ten years later, he moved to the PM House when his wife became the prime minister.

Except that the PM House where Zardari lived was in Karachi, not Islamabad. Every weekend the prime minister travelled with her entourage to Karachi. It was common knowledge that the First Gentleman liked partying and dancing at Bilawal House.

Corruption stories in the media began filling newspaper columns ‘earning’ Zardari the nickname of “Mr 10 Percent,” a title that stuck with him in his wife’s second tenure as PM, except that it changed to “Mr 90 Percent”. A posh sprawling office in one of Islamabad’s high-rises was Zardari’s ‘man cave’ from where he conducted business as the investment minister, a job his wife specially created for him. In the spring of 1996, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher paid a week’s visit to Pakistan billed as a business trip sponsored by Citibank. The investment minister led the talks. Other than a lunch hosted at a 5-star hotel in Islamabad for Thatcher, the media was not privy to the business deals negotiated between Pakistan and UK.

Earlier that year, in an exclusive interview with Dawn magazine, the First Gentleman attempted to wipe out two damning words “commissions and kickbacks” from his resume. The interview began by naming a long list of allegations about his alleged Swiss accounts, French villa, interference in DFIs (Development Financial Institutions), and appointing cronies as presidents of nationalised banks. The First Gentleman calmly pleaded not guilty to the charges during a two-hour interview. Finally he said, “You have to realise that Benazir Bhutto is the Prime Minister. She is not a puppet created by anybody. Pakistan can’t be driven by dual drivers.” He added: “Besides, what experience do I have that I can give her advice on matters of the state.”

Did he wish to hold his wife’s office some day? “No way!” answered Zardari, “I couldn’t even read the files she reads every night! I am not trained that way, besides no one will vote for me.” His last words couldn’t be more oxymoronic, “Happiness is relative, life is never perfect, you have to be content with what you have and not lust after more, there’s no end to greed. Life is a challenge and only they live who dare.”

From First Gentleman Zardari to president; from President Bill Clinton to First Gentleman — the swap is possible. Will Bill, like Zardari want a slot in Hillary’s cabinet?

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 14th, 2016

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