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Imagine this: You see a woman, tall and elegant, with a power-flip hairdo and ruby lips, take an oath of office. You hear her aides call out the words, "Madam President."
Could it be real? Well, on TV it could. America finally has a female president, or at least someone who plays the part on television. Geena Davis is taking over the Oval Office in the prime-time Tuesday drama Commander in Chief, premiering September 27 on ABC. The actress plays Vice President Mackenzie "Mac" Allen, a wife and mother, yes, who is catapulted into the nation's top post after the president has a brain aneurysm.
Already, the show has made for real-life buzz. The White House Project, which works to elevate women in politics, is hosting house parties nationwide and offering screenings in Manhattan; Washington, D.C.; and Denver. Says Donna Good, who's planning a 200-strong gathering in Boston, "It's the first time popular culture has said a woman can be in the Oval Office."
It's timely, too, what with speculation about Senator Hillary Clinton making a White House bid in 2008. Polls show 39 percent of Democrats favor Clinton as the party's next pick, compared with 21 percent for John Kerry.
Clinton, of course, says she's focused on her Senate campaign next year. But plenty of supporters hope the ABC program will start getting the nation accustomed to the idea of a female presidentand thus a President Hillary.
"Hillary must have friends at ABC," says Bob Kunst, of hillarynow.com, a grassroots effort to "draft" Clinton to be the next president. "This is just too much of a coincidence."
Actually, Clinton does have friends on the show. Writer Steve Cohen used to work for her in the 1990s, serving as the then first lady's deputy communications director. "I have no doubt she is capable, qualified, and ready to be the president of the United States should she choose to run," he tells the Voice, in all candor.
But Cohen isn't the show's creator. And that man, Rod Lurie, though a Clinton supporter, has said he modeled his female president not on Hillary, but on Susan Lyne, the former head of ABC who now runs the Martha Stewart empire. Besides, the program works in any woman's favor, Democrat or Republican. For Mac is an independent in a post-G.W. administration. "We support the notion of a female president from either side of the aisle," Cohen says.
That notion seems one whose time has come. Forty-six other nations have had a woman president. This month, polling data found that 79 percent of the American public would be comfortable with one. And pundits are salivating at the prospect of an all-woman contest between Clinton and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; next month, Dick Morris is coming out with a book, Condi v. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race.
Marie Wilson, of the White House Project, has long understood that they can't break down barriers to the Oval Office unless they change minds. And they can't change minds unless they show an alternative.
Enter Commander in Chief, which lets people see a female president tackling problems. The pilot, for example, features Mac confronting doubts that a woman is tough enough to lead America. Before dying, the incapacitated president asks her to resign. So do the president's backers, who believe she was a "token" on the ticket.
Over the weeks, as Mac seeps into the American audience, people will get to explore her leadership. That, Wilson says, "can pave the way for a real female president."
Hillary fans are counting on it. Luke Montgomery of Manhattan launched bill-for-first-lady.com last week to generate a million e-mails urging the senator to go for the Oval Office. He and fellow fans made plans to hold a September 27 rally outside ABC studios just to "thank" the network. The campaign will bring out its mascot, a cross-dressing Bill, in signature pink. "We're getting the jokes out of the way before 2008," explains Montgomery, who has "a zillion reasons" Bill's wife would make a great president.
Top among them is the passion she stirs in people. When the Bill for First Lady campaign hit the streets in Washington, D.C., weeks ago, people responded, snapping photos, hugging volunteers. Some shouted, "Run, Hillary, run."
Even folks in red states are warming up to Clinton. In June, Kunst pulled his truck, plastered with hillarynow.com posters, into a small town in Tennessee. People flocked to him, pressing money into his hand and buying up all 700 of his $2 stickers. He always runs into what he calls "the hysterical, 'I hate her' stuff," yet lately he's encountered more people wondering about Clinton as a leader. Commander in Chief can help "tremendously," he says, so long as it doesn't trivialize the issue.
The show might transform the electorate. Then again, notes Susan Murray of New York University, it might end up like another fictional presidency, the one on West Wing, whose audience tunes in precisely because it's a liberal fantasy. "TV," she adds, "is presenting the opposite of what people imagine in real life."
But if a female candidate wins in '08, Cohen promises, "we will absolutely take credit for it."