A female President? Only if you watch US TV
Thursday 29 September 2005
Sound familiar? But this isn't George W Bush dispensing platitudes to the real world. This is Geena Davis of Thelma and Louise fame, in the make-believe world of primetime television, reincarnated as the first female US president.
The debut of ABC's series Commander in Chief might just be a case of art anticipating life. Davis plays Mackenzie Allen, Vice-President when the series opens, an independent brought in on the Republican ticket by candidate Roosevelt Bridges to appeal to women voters.
But Bridges suffers a sudden and devastating aneurysm. "Mac" cuts short a visit to Paris to return to Washington, only to be told by the dying President and sundry Republican grandees that she should resign and make way for Nathan Templeton, the House speaker and Bridges' intended successor, who is next in line according to the constitution.
But Templeton, played with delicious arrogance and malice by Donald Sutherland, comprehensively blows it. "The world is in turmoil," he informs her. "Now is not the time for social advances."
Her job as Vice-President had been "pure theatre ... and you got great reviews." But, sweet young thing, the curtain has fallen."
An outraged Mac tears up the resignation letter she had drafted and takes the oath of office. And off we go. Commander is the latest variation on a well-worn theme. Magically remote yet almost overpoweringly familiar, the US presidency is irresistible material for film-makers and TV scriptwriters. We've had every sort of President, from a doppelganger ( Kevin Kline in Dave) and a matinee-idol widower (Michael Douglas in The American President), to stuntman-hero (Harrison Ford in Air Force One'). And now a woman - an idea whose time may have come.
ABC's new offering is up against The West Wing on NBC, about to return for a seventh series and which has long had the fictional small screen White House beat to itself. But that show is now oddly dated, harking back to one William Jefferson Clinton.
Commander by contrast, could be harbinger of a future Clinton administration, headed by Hillary Clinton.
Sooner or later, a woman will occupy the Oval Office. Already 14 of the 100 US senators are women.
Women have led governments in Britain, India, Pakistan and Israel, not to mention a clutch of Nordic countries. Germany may soon join their ranks - so why not America?
Right now indeed, it's hard to imagine Hillary Clinton not being the Democratic nominee in 2008. And, in the absence of a male heir apparent to George Bush, websites have sprung up to press the cause of Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State (and former provost of Stanford University) on the Republican side. A Hillary/Condi match-up in three years time? Don't rule it out.
Even so, this show may struggle to gain the cult following of The West Wing, with its razor-sharp dialogue between young aides racing down corridors as they sort out their love lives, resolve budget rows and settle the fate of the universe - all in a stream of one-liners. With its treacly background music, and sappy family interludes, Commander has an old-fashioned feel, for all the novelty of its premise. Already conservatives decry it as another example of Hollywood wearing its liberal politics on its sleeve. In particular, they object to the portrayal of Templeton, the top Republican, as a schemer so ruthless that Karl Rove comes across as a kindergarten innocent by comparison.
In truth, Commander - to judge by the first episode at least - could be the tale of an upwardly mobile soccer mom. Womens' groups have complained that despite the ground-breaking veneer, at heart the show is still sexist. Its heroine, they note, only becomes President by accident; and what male chief executive would have to juggle global strategy deliberations with helping the kids with their homework?
In some respects, however, the shows are similar. Soon-to-be-departing President Josiah Bartlett(Martin Sheen) on The West Wing is an intellectual; so is Mackenzie Allen, a former university head who spent four years in Congress before retreating in relief to the purer groves of academe.
And while Commander has a less coruscating script than The West Wing, it has some good lines nonetheless. "If Moses had been a woman," Bridges' widow tells "Mac", "he would have stopped to ask for directions after leaving Egypt, and the Jews would have been in Israel in a week."
Such role reversal provides some of the best situation jokes in Commander. Fired up by Templeton's sneering, even by the end of the first episode, the lady has taken firm charge. But every male assumption of her model husband Rod has been turned on its head.
No longer can he serve as her chief of staff, he is told. Even his wife agrees: "As the first female president, I can't have it appear that my husband's running the country," she says at one point. Thus a bewildered First Gentleman is shown into his new premises in the residential and ceremonial East Wing, decorated in shocking salmon pink, and told to confine his political involvement to the menus for state dinners. In the end, of course, all will be well. They make up with a cuddle and Rod, reassured, says to his powerful wife: "Go run the country, honey."
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