Doug Emhoff wasn’t always this way. He wasn’t always the type to go around talking about how much he loves his wife, let alone quit his high-powered job to travel the country talking about how much he loves his wife.
When he was married to Kerstin, not Kamala, Doug Emhoff was more likely to throw himself into his work as a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer, play golf, sit on a couch, and watch sports on television. A guy, devoting billable hours to a fight over the origins of the Taco Bell Chihuahua, otherwise not out to change the world.
His signature piece of life advice, still ringing in the ears of Cole and Ella, his two 20-something children named after Coltrane and Fitzgerald, is, naturally, about sports, any sport, or maybe about anything. It is “soft hands.”
Now, it’s Emhoff, 56, who’s showing the deftly supportive soft touch of a man in a second marriage of epic proportions. With Sen. Kamala Harris set to assume the vice presidency — the first woman, Black, and Asian American to do so — her husband, Doug, is about to take on his own place in history.
Emhoff will become the nation’s first second gentleman, and, not for nothing, the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president.
The son of Barb and Mike, a shoe designer, Emhoff was born in the New York City borough of Brooklyn and raised in Matawan and Old Bridge, New Jersey. When he was still in high school, the Emhoffs decamped to the West Coast, where he later met then-Attorney General Harris, and the rest is Naval Observatory history.
“It’s an amazing transformation for all of us to watch,” says Los Angeles film producer Kerstin Emhoff, his ex-wife and mother of his children, who is finding her own unique footing in this emerging happily blended extended vice presidential family tableau. “He’s not the political guy. He’s just Doug.”
Cue the jokes about supportive Jewish husbands of more accomplished women — this is, perhaps, their moment, as more than a few have tweeted about, but Emhoff inhabits the role without irony or shtick. (Though Kamala cracked up a Manhattan audience with her imitation of her mother-in-law’s New Jersey-by-way-of-Brooklyn accent.)
Emhoff is all in. “My wife, I love her, I do,” he said, more than once, speaking at a defunct farm market in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, the day before Election Day, another in a series of less-than-glamorous places the campaign sent him.
Emhoff is still good friends with ex Kerstin, who is close friends with Kamala, who, in turn, is adored by her stepchildren, who call her “Momala,” which also works, for anyone trying to game out Emhoff’s Jewishness, as a play on Mamele, a tried-and-true Yiddish term of endearment. (On this topic, Kerstin can attest: Emhoff is a bagels-and-lox guy, and herring. Case closed.)
“They make it appear so normal because that’s who they are,” said Alex Weingarten, a former law partner and friend of 17 years. “This is not a contrived situation.”
Emhoff took a leave from DLA Piper to campaign full time, and, according to a Biden-Harris spokesperson, “is not resuming his private law practice at the firm.” Emhoff was not made available for an interview for this story.
He has talked about building a second gentleman platform helping people access legal services, or focusing on pro bono work.
Friends and family think he will be a natural in the traditionally domesticated role, even though he’s admittedly more sous to Kamala’s chef, more Fantasy Sports than Rent the Runway.
“He’s not that guy,” who will suddenly be, as they say, measuring drapes, says Kerstin Emhoff, by phone from Los Angeles, where she is head of the production company Prettybird. “That’s never been his role.”
Shortly after Harris became senator in 2017, Emhoff called his ex to commiserate about a lunch for the Senate Spouses Club.
“Everyone had to give a recipe for a cookbook for Melania,” Kerstin recalled. “Doug was like, ‘All right, I don’t have a recipe for Melania.’”
Now, Emhoff will preside over the Senate Spouses Club, once the wives club.
“I think he’s going to do it with grace and passion,” Kerstin said, “but there will be a lot of humor in it.”
Another high-profile male political spouse, Chasten Buttigieg, husband of Pete, says the second gentleman mission will go beyond just really cool afternoon teas with Doug. Any sewing required will be to repair “the social fabric of these institutions.”
“I think Doug understands how important it is for him and Dr. (Jill) Biden to continue establishing a sense of empathy and respect for those offices,” said Buttigieg, author of a memoir, “I Have Something to Tell You.”
“Doug will have to step up and help Dr. Biden usher in all of these things we’ve been missing, like respect and empathy, so the American people can sleep at night. It’s far beyond being a host.”
On the campaign trail, Emhoff bonded with Buttigieg, at the time his competitor for the (still-unfilled) job of first first gentleman. They texted during debates, exchanged advice on “political spousing.”
“We connected on everything,” Buttigieg recalled, “the hard part, the hilarious part.”
Buttigieg thinks a second gentleman, especially one who is willing to cede the spotlight, will be profound.
“It’s not that Washington, D.C., is starved for straight, white, male representation,” Buttigieg said. “It’s the character that he will bring to that office. It’s really important to show other spouses, especially men, that women can be in charge, women can take the lead, and male spouses can support them.”
Kelly Dittmar, scholar at Rutgers Center for American Women in Politics, agrees that a male second spouse is an important milestone, especially one not looking to be a policy partner.
But she cautions against assumptions that allow Emhoff to break free of expectations for the (unpaid) role. As second lady, Jill Biden broke ground by keeping her job.
“We shouldn’t assume just because a man now holds this role, that’s what it takes to disrupt those particularly gendered and sexist norms of the roles of the second spouse,” Dittmar said.
Kerstin Emhoff can only laugh. People are really into Doug, none more than Barb and Mike, who started a Grandparents for Biden group, and for whom Doug is “the golden boy.” (Reached by phone, Barb said she would be happy to talk about her son, but, “I really am not at liberty.”)
With a blend of seriousness and dad dorkiness, Emhoff scarfed turkey jerky through a series of small-ball campaign appearances, a long way from the sidelines of a Los Angeles Lakers game, from where he first texted Harris, after a mutual friend suggested he call her.
Since sending Harris the long voicemail she still torments him with, since the two efficiently steered themselves to marriage within a six-month time frame, since his children fell for this ambitious, beautiful woman with the big laugh, he evolved.
“Doug will say, he’s a much better guy now,” Kerstin Emhoff says. “He’s lovely with her. We joke about it all the time. He does things for her that he would have never done for me. He’s in his groove now.”
Now, there’s the DougHive fan base, a subset of the KHive. He’s claimed by alumni of NJY Jewish summer camps, and people from Matawan are sure the Emhoffs lived in the “A Section” (Autumn Lane, etc.) and that Doug became a bar mitzvah at Temple Shalom.
Terrified about how an ex-wife might be portrayed, Kerstin Emhoff started posting about her closeness with Doug and friendship with Kamala. People responded, and this family has leaned into their identity, as Harris wrote, of being “almost too functional.”
“They role model what a modern American family looks like,” says Weingarten, Emhoff’s law partner. “Not only because she’s the first female vice president, not only because they’re a biracial couple, not only because she’s a stepmother to his children. It’s all of these things together. They just make it work.”
So far, Doug Emhoff is not shying away from either the substance or the superficiality of the second man role. On the way to residing in the Naval Observatory, he turned down news interviews and opted for one with Men’s Health magazine, about his workout routine (better after marrying the disciplined Harris).
He gave a gauzy jokey Zoom interview with Cole and Ella, who noted his comfort around powerful women. (After slaying in a pin-striped suit on stage with the Bidens on Nov. 7, design student and knitter Ella has her own fan base.)
Still, Kerstin Emhoff notes, “Nobody’s ready for what is happening right now. Cole’s not ready. Ella’s not ready. Everyone is taking it step by step. If we didn’t have such a strong foundation as a family, I would be more nervous about it.”
©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer