Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A Lipstick President

By MAUREEN DOWD

The president is working up a sweat, keeping that perfectly toned body perfectly toned. I slide past stone-faced men with earpieces and ask the president how it's going.

"Good," she says, grinning. "People ask me if there could really be a woman president and I say, Of course, it's the 21st century."

Geena Davis was shooting a rowing scene at the Potomac Boat House on Monday morning for her new ABC show, "Commander-in-Chief," about the first woman president.

Luckily, the first woman president is tall, a shade taller than W., so she's eyeball to eyeball with generals and ambassadors. And she's a redhead. Redheads, a recent study showed, have a higher tolerance for pain. In the show's premiere, a lot of pain is dished up for Ms. Davis's character, Mackenzie Allen, the vice president of a conservative president who keels over before the first hour is over.

Nobody wants the vice president, a political independent, to be Madame President. Not the president, who tells her before he dies to resign so his ally, the archconservative speaker of the House played by Donald Sutherland, can get the job. Not the president's chief of staff. Not her sulky, sexy conservative teenage daughter. Even her supportive (and faithful) politico husband gets skittish after East Wing staffers begin calling him "the first lady" and arrange his meetings with the White House chef.

Mr. Sutherland's Nathan Templeton condescendingly asks her, "How many Islamic states do you think would follow the edicts of a woman?"

"Well, not only that, Nathan," she replies sarcastically, "but we have that whole 'once a month will she or won't she press the button' thing."

He laughs nastily. "Well, in a couple years," he says, "you're not gonna have to worry about that anymore."

The creator and writer, Rod Lurie, also had an embattled woman vice president in his 2000 movie "The Contender." (He named his TV president and vice president Bridges and Allen; the stars playing those roles in 2000 were Jeff Bridges and Joan Allen.)

He told me he modeled his female president not on Hillary Clinton but on Susan Lyne, the smart, elegant former president of ABC Entertainment who is chief executive at Martha Stewart Inc. He said he wanted someone "of rather unimpeachable integrity, very kind, very calm."

As Geena Davis was bursting into the Oval Office, and the other TV president, Martin Sheen, was dropping in on Cindy Sheehan in Crawford, Hillary was plotting for real.

Her political activism began with her 1969 Wellesley commencement speech, when she slapped back a Republican senator, Edward Brooke, for criticizing the students' Vietnam War protests. She praised "that indispensable task of criticizing."

But now Hillary's voice is often pianissimo on the current hot issue: how to get out of Iraq. Once we made sure Saddam was armed against Iran. Now we may have to arm an Islamic protégé of Iran if we want to pull out.

But Hillary's not playing the vocal peacenik this time - she's the cagey hawk. She knows if she wants to be the first woman president, she can't have love beads in her jewelry box.

She has defended her vote to authorize the president to wage war, even though it was apparent then that the administration was snookering the country. And she has argued for more troops in Iraq, knowing it sounds muscular but there's no support for it from the public - or Rummy.

She figures the liberals will stay with her while she scuttles to the center, even if they get angry when she's not out front on stopping the war or preserving abortion rights. No one knows how she'll vote on John Roberts, so this could be her own Sister Souljah moment - will she break with the hard-line left on Judge Roberts?

What Hillary has going for her is exhaustion. Exhaustion kicks in with any party in power for eight years, let alone one that tricked the country into war. And at some point, voters may be too exhausted to resist Hillary's relentless ambition any longer.

But by hanging back and trimming her positions, by keeping her powder dry until a more politically advantageous time, she may miss the moment when Americans are looking for someone to emerge from her cowering party to articulate their anger about Iraq or their fear about a Supreme Court that will scale back women's rights and civil rights here, as Islamic courts do the same in Iraq.

Hillary may get caught flat-footed. Or she may be right in betting that there's no need to do anything rash now, like leading.

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