This president gets a 'no' vote

Too much prime-time soap opera, not enough reality 'Commander in Chief' is not the distaff White House of feminist dreams.

First, the disclaimer: My husband, teenage daughter and I are inveterate watchers of "The West Wing." Having had quite enough of the reality series that is the Bush administration, we have for years used "The West Wing" as both our escape and an ongoing current-events tutorial.

Now comes "Commander in Chief," for which my household is surely the target audience, because the only thing that could possibly be better than the Bartlet White House, in our collective fantasy, is a White House with a woman at the helm.

One critic referred to the new series, in which the president dies and Vice President Mackenzie Allen takes the oath of office, as a "liberal fantasy," and my feminist heart began to pound in happy anticipation.

Then I saw the premiere. I came away wondering how the following two items could possibly be considered components of a liberal agenda:

•  Vice President Allen rails at the conservative speaker of the House for male assumptions about female emotionalism — and then decides to assume the presidency (despite having written a resignation letter) because he makes her blood boil with a sexist reference. If she can do a 180 in response to a standard-issue insult, I'm not so comfortable giving her the red phone.

•  The first lady's — now the first gentleman's — chief of staff is such a throwback caricature of the efficient but clueless female that we laugh at her, not with her.

There are other examples, but these two characters stand at opposite ends of the power spectrum, and if you're going to be enlightened, you have to be consistent about it. These women bracket a single truth: This is not the distaff administration of our dreams.

Dismayed, I wondered if my loyalty to "The West Wing" had clouded my vision. Or if I'd fallen prey to the double standard that expects women to be superwomen and lets men be, well, men. Or maybe I'd just failed to appreciate how impressive President Allen is.

I don't think so. One of the dubious advantages of having watched so much of "The West Wing" is that I can credibly say that any one of its female characters can run policy circles around both the men and women of "Commander in Chief." And that, disappointed feminists, is the insidious point.

"The West Wing" staked out virgin territory — we've had sitcoms about presidents but not a successful hour-long series — and the show's creators hired Democratic pollster Pat Caddell and Clinton administration Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers to give the stories verisimilitude. In the midst of an endless parade of intimate dramas about cops, lawyers and doctors, we got our first close look at the workings of the White House. The polyphasic insanity has had a ring of truth.

"Commander in Chief" chose not to try to beat "The West Wing" at its own game — but as a result, it runs at a more familiar pace; its kinder, gentler approach seems to lack focus. Emphasize life in the West Wing, and critics will complain that the series tries too hard to make a woman president seem believable; emphasize the East Wing, the family story, and critics will complain that the show's creators don't have enough faith in their concept to allow President Allen to run the country. Attempt to do both and you do neither very well.

So we end up with a prime-time soap opera, in which the new president manages to silence all but one of her detractors before the credits roll (which happens all the time in the nation's capital). This is not consensus-building, just dramatic convenience, and it may unintentionally set back the cause.

Whether we're watching TV or heading to the polls, we can't settle for being thrilled just because there's a woman in the White House, nor can we insist that she be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. We need to set standards that ignore gender, because a woman president is neither a novelty act nor the messiah.

I can't help but wish that the folks at "The West Wing" had tackled the subject instead. I wonder if they didn't because they understood something the staff of "Commander in Chief" is about to find out: If it were easy for all of us to wrap our minds around the notion of a woman president, we might have had one by now.

When we do, I doubt she'll resemble this network television version. If the premiere episode is an example, we're getting a valiant woman instead of the real leader so many of us yearn for. One can only mangle Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's classic 1988 put-down of John Kennedy wannabe Dan Quayle: President Allen, you're no Jed Bartlet.


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