By Betsy Rothstein - 09/27/05 12:00 AM EDT
The scene inside the National Museum of Women in the Arts was fit for a queen last week.
The elegant cocktail party reception for the White House Project’s screening of the new ABC drama “Commander in Chief” was just as it should be — Cleopatra would have been most proud — as it was run by women and attended by women with men dressed in black-and-white uniforms serving the food and drink on silver trays. The women feasted on miniature frosted cupcakes, fruit shish kabobs, miniature hamburgers and glass after glass of wine and sparkling water with lemon or lime.
Women from all over Washington piled into the museum for a cause they believe is long overdue: the first female presidency. (The White House Project was founded by Marie Wilson in 1998 to place women into elected office, including the U.S. presidency.)
The show debuts tonight on ABC at 9 p.m. It features Oscar winner Geena Davis, who plays MacKenzi Allen, an independent-party female vice president who is suddenly thrust into the role of president after the Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt Bridges, dies of a bleeding brain aneurysm.
On his deathbed, Bridges asks Allen to resign, saying he won’t resign until she does. Rather than hand over the presidency to the Republican House Speaker, a sinister character played by Donald Sutherland, Allen considers assuming the role of president herself. Her daughter, Becca, a young teenage Republican, has her own Patty Davis-esque reaction (Patty Davis Reagan dropped the Reagan name, using her mother’s maiden name, to express her disgust with her father’s politics).
“If you can’t deliver, then maybe you should step aside,” says Becca, who is caught making out with a boy when the Secret Service comes to summon her back home.
While the women milling about the museum are excited about the prospect of a female president, they know there are still hurdles to jump. “I’m ready for a woman president, but I don’t think men would be ready at all,” said Tosha O’Neal who works for a local utility company she wouldn’t name.
O’Neal said she believes a woman in the White House would mean a more thoughtful approach to foreign policy: “A woman would resort to diplomacy. If we were attacked, then she would turn into a barracuda. But here come those brutes with clubs — if you don’t give us what we want, we will take it,” she said, mocking a stereotypical male attitude.
But not everyone is so hot for a female president, especially if the candidate is Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). “If the candidate has bad politics they’ve got bad politics whether they are male or female,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). “I would not support someone who had bad politics whom I disagree with.”
That goes for both sides of the aisle and both sexes.
When asked if the United States is ready for a female president, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) replied, “I think the country is ready for a competent president.”
But the senator isn’t the only lawmaker full of quips and gripes and deeper thoughts on the subject. When asked the same question, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) declared, “I think the country is ready if she’s a conservative Republican.”
Sessions said he believes Clinton is the wrong choice, insisting that she’ll be for “higher spending, more taxes and a judiciary that would be more activist. She wouldn’t submit a John Roberts type of nominee.”
Asked for more fitting choices, Sessions declined, saying, “It’s premature. I’m not thinking about the election.”
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) apparently has thought about a woman in the highest office, and named names: “Elizabeth Dole is a wonderful lady. Condoleezza Rice would be a wonderful choice.”
Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said he also knows of two more “wonderful” choices for president — his daughters, ages 11 and 12. More seriously, he added, “America is long overdue for a strong conservative women in the White House.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) made a slip that some might consider telling. “I think there’s a large number of female members on both sides who would make excellent senators, er, presidents,” he said. “And I refuse to name any names or I’ll get in trouble.”
Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) said Clinton is “an inevitable nominee if she wants it.” Sessions concluded that “certainly America is ready to consider a woman.”
But on the well-made TV drama, “Commander in Chief,” it is clear that Speaker Sutherland’s character doesn’t agree. “This is not the time for social advances made for the sake of social advances,” the actor says to Vice President Allen.
“Meaning a woman in the Oval Office?” she retorts.
“No,” he says, “meaning a woman as the leader of the free world.”
Few members of Congress would dare to say that a woman isn’t suitable for the White House, but that doesn’t mean that the perception is not out there.
Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.) insisted they are “out there,” and by that she means men within the conservative wing of the Republican Party who don’t believe a woman is capable of assuming the highest office in the land.
“The ones that trouble me are the right-wing ideologues who believe that a woman’s place is in the home and not in the House or Senate,” Watson said, “and there are some.” She pointed out, “Under male leadership, this country has lost a lot of its prestige.”
So why has there never been a female president?
“I don’t know if there is any one specific reason of why we have not,” Blackburn said. “It could be any number of things. There could be women who just didn’t feel it was time to move forward.”
Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), the only female member in the Texas GOP delegation, said she believes it’s high time for a woman in the White House but knows some people still have fears about it. “Perhaps the one thing that would make some people pause has to do with defense and military. There’s still a much smaller number of women in the military. Looking at Condoleezza Rice and the position she holds, it does make people say, ‘Sure, a woman can handle it.’”
Granger said a show such as “Commander in Chief” at least “starts the conversation.” But there are other matters to consider, such as the idea that not all women believe it can or should happen. “I don’t know whether they think it’s [an issue of being] capable, or it’s that they don’t think it’s appropriate. They’ve never been in that role. They’ve never had that experience.”
Granger remembers her own experiences with sex discrimination well. In her generation, she said, the career choices included nurse, secretary and teacher — and she was a teacher. She was also a businesswoman who set out to start her own insurance agency.
“I had a very hard time getting a business loan,” she said. “I had bankers tell me frankly, ‘Women don’t make it in business.’” Granger never got the loan but used $10,000 of her own money to start the business she still owns.
Before the lights went down and the screening of “Commander in Chief” began, the museum was a whir of female energy and excitement over the prospect of a woman as president. That is when Wilson, former president of the Ms. Foundation for Women and co-founder of Take Our Daughters to Work Day, stepped up and gave a few words of encouragement as well as the bitter reality.
She said she had begged the networks for years for a script that involved a female president. “They said no,” she told the crowd of women. “I think it was a Zen thing. We stopped begging for it, and it appeared.”