She’s No First Lady

White House Project Hopes New TV Drama Becomes a Reality

Posted September 16, 2005 at 3:48pm

As the president travels down Pennsylvania Avenue to address a joint session of Congress, a crisis hits.

The first daughter accidentally spills juice all over the president’s suit.

No worries. The president just covers up the stain with an adviser’s pink scarf.

She is Mackenzie Allen, the independent, strong-willed and tough leader of the free world on the new ABC drama, “Commander-in-Chief.”

“We want people to really watch this show, and we want it to connect with people in D.C.,” said Marie Wilson, founder of The White House Project, a group that works to bring more women into political office. “I want to make sure young women watch this. And young men.”

The White House Project is sponsoring a screening of the pilot episode Thursday at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The group hopes the show will help with its ultimate goal: bringing a woman to the real-life White House.

“Since you can’t see one, you have to show one for it to come true,” Wilson said.

While “Commander-in-Chief” might not magically create a viable female presidential candidate, it could help bring the topic into the nation’s political dialogue, said Leonard Steinhorn, an associate professor at American University’s School of Communication.

“It can at least get into people’s conversations,” said Steinhorn, who teaches classes on political communication and media studies. “Whether that changes the way people look at the world, I can’t say.”

But Wilson believes the time is ripe for a female president. A recent poll sponsored by the White House Project shows 79 percent of Americans would be comfortable with a female president.

Perhaps as important, Wilson said, is the fact the poll shows that the majority of Americans believe a female leader would handle issues of foreign policy, homeland security and the economy no differently than a male president.

“It shows that it’s made a difference to have Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice” in high-level Cabinet positions, Wilson said. “That’s why this is going to happen. That’s why it’s time.”

So how does a woman get into the Oval Office?

In the show, Vice President Allen (played by Oscar winner Geena Davis) takes control of the White House when the president dies after a stroke.

But Allen immediately faces tough opposition.

It comes mainly from conservative Speaker Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland), who insists Allen resign her new post because, as an Independent picked for VP to attract swing voters, she does not share the president’s conservative vision of America.

In the meantime, Allen’s husband — her chief of staff when she was vice president — has been regulated to the offices of the first lady. That forces Allen to do what so many working mothers do: balance work and family.

Wilson said her group has lobbied Hollywood for years to put a show like “Commander-in-Chief” on the airwaves. Only once women such as Albright and Rice became legitimate political powerhouses did Hollywood executives take notice, she said.

“There were not many shows that showed women as leaders at all,” Wilson added.

Television has played a role in helping push important social issues forward in many cases, Steinhorn said. Women were given a boost in the 1970s when “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” hit the airwaves, for example.

“It validated something that was going on in our culture. Women were no longer perceived, or thought to be perceived, as dependent on men,” he said.

That perception is what Wilson hopes will happen with “Commander-in-Chief.”

“You cannot be what you can’t see,” Wilson said. “When you show something, people can be engaged.”

Many believe the themes found on television often are just a mirror image of what the mood of country already is, Steinhorn said. So, there could be a woman in the White House soon, he said.

“We will have a female president in our history,” Steinhorn said. “Just get used to it, America.”

“Commander-in-Chief” will be screened at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW. Scheduled guests include the show’s writer and producer, along with journalists Eleanor Clift, Gwen Ifill and Helen Thomas. The program is set to premiere at 9 p.m. Sept. 27 on ABC.