A Woman in the White House?

Will a woman run the White House after the 2008 election? Former Vermont Gov. Madeleine May Kunin considers the example set by the new TV show Commander in Chief.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Madeleine May Kunin served from 1985 to 1991 as the first woman governor of Vermont, a position that gave her national distinction and made her very familiar with the burdens and responsibilities of being a chief executive. Kunin found herself watching television recently, and one new show prompted some reflections on her experience.

Former Governor MADELEINE MAY KUNIN:

We have our first woman president.

(Soundbite of "Commander in Chief")

Ms. GEENA DAVIS: (As Mackenzie Allen) OK. Let's go ahead and go to a higher DEFCON. Let's get a carrier station set and get an extraction team ready.

Unidentified Man #1: Yes, ma'am.

Ms. KUNIN: Yet she's not real. Her name is Mackenzie Allen, played by Geena Davis on the new television show "Commander in Chief." Real or not, she's a trailblazer. We have to visualize a woman president in office before we can have one. We have to see her there in the Oval Office, there sitting down with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, there preparing for her address to a joint session of Congress, and there coping with her children's and husband's demands while preparing for a press conference.

There is much to criticize about the show. It's not "West Wing." Mackenzie miraculously pulls herself out of tough situations and comes out a winner at the end of each episode a bit too quickly to be realistic. There is also much to praise. The writers have taken pains to create a character who's credible, combining characteristics that we associate with men--strength, decisiveness--with characteristics we associate with women--caring, family, kids. Even her nickname, Mac, a man's name, is intended to reveal her toughness, a trait which the first woman president will have to display. Her dress, mostly in black; her presence, tall; her speech, straightforward--all designed to show her ability to lead a nation.

But the show also portrays the hurdles a woman president will face. First of all, getting the job. This commander in chief gets the job because she is vice president when the president dies in office. Unlike male vice presidents, who would automatically take the oath of office, she's asked to resign by the dying president and the speaker of the House...

(Soundbite of "Commander in Chief")

Ms. DAVIS: (As Mackenzie Allen) Nate.

Ms. KUNIN: ...who covets the job himself.

(Soundbite of "Commander in Chief")

Ms. DAVIS: (As Mackenzie Allen) I'm going to go out there and I'm going to take the oath of office. I'm going to run this government. And if some Islamic nations can't tolerate a female president, then I promise you, it will be more their problem than mine.

Mr. DONALD SUTHERLAND: (As Nathan Templeton) Why? Why do you want to be president?

Ms. DAVIS: (As Mackenzie Allen) For the same reason Teddy Bridges did: because I believe the people of America deserve to have a president...

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Nathan Templeton) No. No! In this room, where it's just you and me, just the two of us, the answer that you should be giving me is that you want to be president because you want the power. You want the power to control the universe.

Ms. DAVIS: (As Mackenzie Allen) That's not me.

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Nathan Templeton) Well, that's the problem!

Ms. KUNIN: The message is clear: A woman doesn't belong in the Oval Office. A woman can't do the job. The message of the show is that a woman can do the job, even if she does it differently. Unlike her male predecessors, whose day-to-day family life is invisible, we see the first woman president coping with a rebellious daughter and a husband who has difficulty with his new role: first gentleman.

(Soundbite of "Commander in Chief")

Unidentified Man #2: I assume we will be meeting daily to discuss the menu?

Mr. KYLE SECOR: (As Rod Allen) Well, that's not really my style, Mark...

Unidentified Woman: Actually, the first lady does have quite a bit of involvement in the meal preparation. There was Mrs. Clinton; of course, she shunned that. Making the kitchen staff guess didn't go over very well.

Unidentified Man #2: Tonight, before the speech, something light, perhaps--a salad, I suppose.

Mr. SECOR: Oh, that'd be fine.

Ms. KUNIN: She has somewhat different priorities and a slightly different style from her male predecessors--ready to pull out troops for a woman who is about to be killed for having committed adultery, creating a bond with the leader of a former Communist country by remembering his father. But there is no doubt that they, the traditional pols, are out to get her. She's an Independent, unaccustomed to partisan battles, and a product of academia, where merit is supposed to prevail. But in each episode, she learns the ropes and fights back.

One TV critic called the show `a feminist wish-fulfillment fantasy.' I'd rather see it as a preview of what's to come.

YDSTIE: Former Vermont Governor Madeleine May Kunin. Her commentary on America's fictitious first woman president is adapted from an original version that aired on Vermont Public Radio.

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