It’s a sunny October day, and Doug Emhoff is back in his native New Jersey for the first time as Second Gentleman of the United States. “It looks surprisingly the same, except this beautiful city walk we’re on, which is incredible,” he says, gesturing to a riverside pathway, which sits across from a set of dumpsters, a pile of old mattresses and an ambulance parking lot. “It really feels like home.”
Emhoff has just finished a long day of asking people how it’s going. First, he was at a Newark high school, asking students, “How’s it going? Going back to school?” He told the principal that they’ve “got it going on” with their high student vaccination rate. Then, after eating lunch at a picnic table outside a diner, he had come to this scenic path in Elizabeth to visit young environmental-cleanup workers and talk about the climate provisions of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan. Emhoff moves abnormally slow, with his hands held tightly at his belt and pretending not to notice the cameras crouching in front of him. Occasionally, he looks down at a rectangular note card and then says something like, “What does a space like this do for your community and your peers?”
Emhoff is entitled to some slack if this all seems new. Not long ago, he was a single dad and L.A. lawyer perhaps best known for winning an intellectual-property case involving the Taco Bell Chihuahua. Today, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris—he actually refers to her as “Kamala Harris” when she’s not around—is the first ever male spouse of a Vice President and the first Jewish person in one of the two leading couples of American life.
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This role is not one Emhoff was expected to play. He’s one of the White House’s most enthusiastic surrogates, traveling to 30 states and 21 COVID-19-vaccination clinics to promote Biden and Harris’ domestic-policy agenda and vaccination push. Party fundraising emails sent out under Emhoff’s name do as well as those signed by high-profile congressional Democrats, according to a party spokesperson, and Emhoff was one of the party’s top five email fundraisers in September.
I wanted to know what it was like for a regular guy to suddenly become one-quarter of America’s most powerful double date. Rare people have the opportunity to live in the complex political world that surrounds President and Vice President. Fewer also get to witness it from a fresh perspective, unaffected by years of guarded politics. Emhoff was thrust into a world of increased security and constant scrutiny in a little over one year. “He never used the word You are lonely but I think there’s so much stuff that he can’t do,” says one old friend.
Does Emhoff ever stop to wonder how a guy who is trying to get his wife to like Radiohead and named his fantasy football team “Nirvana” became someone who’s surrounded by earpieced bodyguards and gets birthday gifts from the President of the United States? He smiles, blinks slowly and says in a low voice, “Every minute of every day.”
Emhoff is a freelancerA corner office located at the end a bright hallway of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. It overlooks the Washington Monument and is next to the White House. It’s crammed with knickknacks: a photo of his first flight on Air Force Two; a map with pins for every place he’s visited as Second Gentleman; a souvenir from star quarterback Tom Brady’s visit to the White House. “Everyone wanted to talk about football, so I asked him about golf,” Emhoff recalls. “And at the end, I said, ‘Who are you again?’”
Emhoff was born in Brooklyn, N.J. in 1964. He was raised in Old Bridge N.J. and moved to California as an adolescent. In Los Angeles, Emhoff was a Corporate Lawyer at Venable LLP. He represented companies such as Merck, Dolarian, and even the husband of one Real Housewives. He was competitive in the right places, but he also had a reputation for helping younger colleagues. According to a junior colleague, Emhoff was the one who would order Chipotle for the associates that worked late at night. Emhoff is a “good sit-next-to guy,” says his close friend Mitch Evall. “He’s a really pointed observer of human behavior.”
Everyone I called told me the same thing: Emhoff seems to be, as NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell put it, “just a good dude.” Emhoff’s son Cole described him as “a little embarrassing,” and mentioned his habit of falling asleep in movies. Cole and his sister Ella used to tease Emhoff for forcing them down black-diamond slopes on family ski trips, in what they called “Evil Daddy Ski School.” (He named them Cole and Ella after jazz greats; they call him “Doug,” not Dad.) Cole says his friends like to rib him about the Democratic fundraising appeals they receive under his father’s name: “Oh, your dad just emailed me.”
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Emhoff first met Harris on a blind date that was set up by a friend. He fell in love with Harris immediately. Even today, Emhoff’s friends claim that Emhoff is still so thrilled to see Vice President Hillary Clinton when she arrives home that Emhoff will stop FaceTime conversations and hang up right there. “He’ll be like, ‘She’s home!’” says Evall, “and it’s a blank screen.”
When the couple met, Harris was the attorney general of California—a big job, but not one that required Emhoff to upend his life. Even when Harris won a U.S. Senate seat in 2016, the move to D.C. didn’t change much. Emhoff was a member of DLA Piper but it wasn’t much. He could still go to the grocery and watch the Dodgers, and he lived a fairly normal existence.
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Emhoff and Kerstin Emhoff are close friends, co-parents and have been together since their divorce in 2008. He was her lawyer until January when he decided to give up the law practice. According to everyone, they are a harmoniously blended family. Despite his initial marriage, Emhoff is still growing. He now tries to “listen more than you talk,” he says, and Kerstin says he does things with Harris, like plan couple’s trips, that he didn’t before. “Of course he’s a better husband, and that’s great,” Kerstin says. “That’s how it should be.”
Kerstin claims Emhoff supported her work during their marriage. However, being a wife to a presidential candidate means that you need to cheer them on. During Harris’ short-lived run, Emhoff was rarely without a T-shirt bearing his wife’s name. Former campaign staff recall he tended to be more digitally savvy than some of Harris’ advisers, often the first to see a particular Instagram post or a tweet about the campaign. (Once glued to Instagram, Emhoff now has “the phone of a 7-year-old,” he says, for security reasons.) His apparent glee at his wife’s accomplishments made him America’s favorite Wife Guy, partly because he seemed less closed-off than other political spouses. “In politics, you’re expected to be very guarded,” recalls Chasten Buttigieg, who became friends with Emhoff during the Democratic presidential primary. “But he would see me down the hallway and he would shout my name across hundreds of people.”
When Biden chose Harris as his running mate in August 2020, life “changed on a dime, without any time to breathe or reflect,” Emhoff recalls. His condo was suddenly crowded with reporters. The living room was crowded with campaign personnel carrying boxes full of binders. “It was just like a rocket ship.” Emhoff was thrust onstage into a carefully choreographed ballet of official duties, even though he’s still learning the steps.
At Biden’s Inauguration, for example, Emhoff briefly went viral for forgetting where to stand as he and Harris climbed the stairs of the Capitol. “They’re trying to explain to you, ‘O.K., you’re going to get out of the limo and walk up the stairs in this order.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, O.K., I got it,’” he recalls. “And I just got overwhelmed.” He went viral again during the President’s first address to a joint session of Congress, for waving at Speaker Nancy Pelosi and blowing kisses at his wife as the two women waited for Biden to enter. “I looked like Forrest Gump,” he says. “I’m just thinking, ‘O.K., nobody saw that.’” Everybody saw it.
Although Emhoff’s bumbling enthusiasm draws some attention, his tenure in the Second Gentleman role has not been marred by any verbal errors. “Being a lawyer comes in handy,” he says. “I’ve been very cognizant of what comes out of my mouth.” His facial expressions are a different story. He smiles and crosses his eyes when I ask him what he has missed about his past life. a lot.
If Emhoff’s newness gives him an unfiltered view from inside the White House bubble, it’s his maleness that makes history. All of his predecessors have been women—and usually women who were used to the political spotlight. Jill Biden was a veteran of two presidential campaigns, and was a Senate spouse for decades before becoming Second Lady. Karen Pence was the first lady in Indiana before she became the Second Lady. When I asked Emhoff if he had heard from “Mother” Pence, as her husband reportedly refers to her, his eyes flashed. “Mrs. Pence,” he snapped, has been “very gracious in giving advice.”
Traditionally, Second Spouse duties include hosting luncheons or selecting china. To that end, Emhoff says he is “learning about wallpaper.”
“Some of those things are genderized, where, ‘Oh, a man can’t pick wallpaper and pick china.’ Technically, in the reporting and flow charts, it all reports up to me,” he says. But, he adds, “I’m married to Kamala Harris, and she’s going to have some opinions on china and wallpaper.” So Emhoff usually narrows selections down to a few choices and then lets his wife pick. “I’m doing things that I probably wouldn’t have done,” he says, “because one: it’s part of the job. And two: it helps her.”
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Emhoff is still a happy man who finds moments of spontaneity when he can. Emhoff is greeted by a class of high-schoolers performing yoga poses wearing their uniforms after his New Jersey tour to Elizabeth River. Having spent the day walking slowly where he’s told, and standing on pieces of blue tape for photo ops, he seems to sense an opportunity to finally have some fun.
“Should I downward dog this thing, or what?” he says. He then joins his fellow children for a pose like a tree, as the cameras click. “I can’t hold this forever!”
Later, I asked my children what Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff thought. They responded with a near unanimous chorus: “Who?” —By reporting Julia Zorthian