Op-Ed: The president-elect and his VP both provide great models for matrimony

Doug Emhoff, from left, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, President-elect Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden wave to supporters.
Douglas Emhoff, from left, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, President-elect Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden wave to supporters after winning the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
(Los Angeles Times)

I started my life with no possibility of getting married legally. Then, as a gay man, I saw the door to that institution opened to me by the Supreme Court. And now, I am seeing my right to marry threatened again by a new, far more conservative court.

So, marriage is something I have thought and written a lot about.

That’s why I have been so struck watching the president-elect and vice president-elect with their respective spouses during this election season. As I watched them bound onto the stage celebrating victory last weekend, a jarring realization inspired me: The two Democratic couples are each beacons in their own ways of what marriage can be.


Of course, it’s never possible from the outside to know fully what goes on in another person’s marriage. But Jill Biden never sacrificed her career as a public educator in subordination to her husband’s demanding political ascent. And Doug Emhoff, who will soon become the country’s first “second gentleman,” made sacrifices in his legal career to further his wife’s rise. Both marriages upend a gender stereotype or two.

To see how unusual and uplifting those models are, you need only look at the marriages of the sitting president and his second-in-command.

President Trump’s matrimonial arrangement appears to be a textbook example of a certain type of marriage, involving an older businessman, a younger model and a prenup. When Melania mechanically and glamorously traipses behind her husband, it’s as though she’s winking at America, acknowledging her cunning marital bargain.

There are moments, though, when the facade seems to crack: when Melania is seen swatting his hand away from hers, or when, as her former friend reported in a tell-all book, she lets go with the resentment of her first lady duties. “Who gives a f— about the Christmas stuff and decorations?” she reportedly said. “But I need to do it, right?”

Vice President Mike Pence’s marriage appears to be of a stifling type that would have seemed retrograde even in the 1970s. Pence does not attend events that serve alcohol without his wife, Karen, whom he calls “Mother.” He also does not ever dine alone with a woman other than his wife.

In one television appearance, during her 34th year of marriage, Karen Pence told CNN she’s still learning about being a good wife by watching Sarah, her son Michael’s wife. Sarah, Mrs. Pence told the network, insists that Michael “has his responsibilities in the house, and she has hers. And I tend to say, ‘Oh, you know, the vice president is really busy, I’ll do this for him,’ and — really — it’s better if you don’t.” It’s not as if she’s never worked — Karen Pence is an artist and has taught at a Christian school (one that denies entrance to LGBTQ kids). But she openly puts her duties as his wife first.

I know it’s easy to idealize the relationships of others, but the Harris-Emhoff union appears like a next-level marriage: mutual love buoyed, and not challenged, by the other spouse’s passion and gifts. Harris, who first married in her late 40s, feels no need to hide her assertiveness around men. When grilling former Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, she had the old Alabamian stammering that her questioning made him “nervous.” And when she questioned whether Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh would be forthcoming about an answer at his confirmation hearings, she cut him off mid-sentence and growled, “Be sure about your answer, sir.” Harris wears her power like a second skin. She doesn’t apologize for it.

Emhoff clearly finds that alluring. “I love being surrounded by strong women,” he once said. “I’m glad to have had a strong mother. When I got older, it made sense that I would want to continue to be around smart, powerful women. But also women who are funny and compassionate and actually want to do good in the world. People talk about it like it’s something unique or a big deal, but I think, ‘Well, everyone should want to know strong women and support them.’”

To see a woman like Harris achieve this country’s second highest office, with evident affection for both her septuagenarian boss and her coequal husband, is inspiring.

And soon, Jill Biden will make history as the first American first lady to hold down a full-time job while her husband leads a country. Stoicism and compassion, she has written, help bond her to her husband. “I saw my mother cry only one time, at my dad’s funeral. I saw that stoicism as strength — I decided early that I would never let my emotions rule me.”

After the disappointment of a divorce from her first husband, Biden wrote in her memoir, “I never wanted to feel so out of control of my heart again. But in the months that Joe and I were dating, that desire ran up against a new reality: I was falling in love.”

She worried about her vulnerability. “There were times when I actually prayed not to get married. “Please,” I would beg God, “don’t let me make that mistake again.” Still, after four decades of marriage, the Bidens, from all appearances, relish their union.

This isn’t to say that all Republican marriages are one way and all Democratic marriages are another. Like Emhoff, Mitch McConnell entered a mixed-race marriage to a powerhouse of a wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who the New York Times described as an “unapologetically ambitious operator with an expansive network, a short fuse, and a seemingly inexhaustible drive to get to the top and stay there.”

I don’t personally know any of these couples. I have only studied their dynamics from the outside. But it’s pretty clear where I’d like to land, should I find myself at the altar — on the Biden/Harris/Emhoff spectrum of marriage. It’s not just that two dazzling women exercise their purposefulness; two strong men have liberated themselves from dated, boring traps of masculinity.

Rich Benjamin is a contributing writer to Opinion and the author of “Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America.” @IamRichBenjamin