Issue Date: December 9, 2005
ABC's 'Commander in Chief' tries to have it both ways
Tough yet compassionate woman president gets out of tight spots far too easily
By RAYMOND A. SCHROTH
At the Commonweal magazine gala dinner in New York City in September, the evenings first pleasant surprise was a short talk by Kathleen Sebelius. To many, this was our first exposure to the Democratic governor of the predominantly Republican state of Kansas. But quickly the buzz went: Might she be the next president of the United States?
ABC was way ahead of us. That same month it launched Commander in Chief, starring Geena Davis. The series focuses on Mackenzie Allen, an Independent grafted onto the Republican ticket as vice president only to have the president-elect die before taking office. Actually, the dying president had asked her to resign to make way for a party successor, Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland), speaker of the House. But Mac Allen, indignant at a sexist remark, decides to keep the job.
From that moment on Commander in Chief is not just the story of a woman suddenly thrust in over her head proving shes up to the job but a scenario for American politics for the next two years when the two parties decide not just whether a woman should run for president but which women will run and what will they do to each other.
One of the writers worked for Hillary Clinton, so we are warned that President Allens Tuesday night victories may be laying the subliminal groundwork for Sen. Clintons campaign. In an excerpt from his coming book Condi vs. Hillary in the Manchester Guardian, former Clinton operative Dick Morris contends that Hillary is on an uncontested trajectory to win the Democratic nomination in 2008 and only Republican Condoleezza Rice can stop her.
The theme of Commander in Chief is not merely that Allen is capable but that she is Superwoman -- smarter, more politically adept and tougher than the men who hover around and warn her to slow down and listen to their better judgments. That she rejects their advice has made her a feminist hero to Nation columnist Katha Pollitt, who writes that this feminist fantasy gives her a thrill. She loves Geena Davis, who is so unflappable and warm and confident and kind and clever, to say nothing of gorgeous and six feet tall.
The plots however are more soap opera or Sherlock Holmes than The West Wing. The great detective waits in his Baker Street apartment, a petitioner brings a mystery. Holmes spies the archcriminal Professor Moriartys hand at work. Here Moriarty is the malevolent Templeton, determined to become president himself, smiling in Allens face but sabotaging her at every turn.
The story unfolds on two levels: domestic and political. Macs husband, Rod (Kyle Secor), accustomed to being No. 1 adviser, is sidelined by the White House staff. Should he accept the offer to become commissioner of baseball, which would give him independent status? Mac and Rod force their son and daughters to go to public schools. Son Horace (Matt Lanter) is flunking a class and starts a fight on the basketball court when a student criticizes Mom. Daughter Rebecca (Caitlin Wachs) loses her diary, which contains bad stuff about Mom, and is lured to a party by a cool guy who secretly films his attempt to seduce her in his bedroom.
Meanwhile, the president of Russia arrives for a summit. The air is tense. President Allen is reluctant to admit Russia into the World Trade Organization and Russia is reluctant to release an American journalist from prison. Our Mac Allen acts extra nice to the Russians wife and gets the president out on the dance floor where she clinches a deal.
Another motif recurs: Allen must prove she is as tough as any man, so she does what men would do in the same circumstances: She uses force. She readies the Marines to invade Nigeria to rescue a woman about to be executed for adultery. She sends fighter bombers to destroy cocoa fields in a tiny Latin American country to provoke a coup against the president responsible for killing American drug agents. These are small fry operations, like Reagans invasion of Grenada and Bush Sr.s invasion of Panama. But all these killed innocent people. And we arent told how many farmers die when President Allen bombs their crops.
The worst have-it-both-ways episode is a ticking bomb scenario in which terrorists threaten to blow up some high schools and an adviser convinces President Allen to hand over the suspect to skilled interrogators. I dont want to hear about torture, the president tells her. The suspect talks, and the schools dont blow up. A win. Templeton meets Allen in the corridor and congratulates her for having a do-what-you-have-to-do spine he had not previously perceived. It dawns on the president that she has been duped into authorizing torture. She gives a stern lecture against torture and fires her adviser.
But what will the TV audience remember? That Geena Davis is against torture or that torture works?
As this is being written, Commander in Chief has fallen out of the top 10 network ratings. I want it back. And I want to see her take on tougher issues: Roe v. Wade, health care, the pharmaceutical industry, gun control, the death penalty and the abolition of nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, what about 2008? My information is that Dick Cheney, now an embarrassment to Bush, will be forced to resign to be replaced by Condoleezza Rice, to set her up to run against Hillary Clinton. More liberal Democrats, sensing the national antipathy to Hillary, who has never regretted voting for the Iraq war, will draft Geena Davis to quit the TV series and run against her for the nomination.
Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is professor of humanities at St. Peters College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Catholic Reporter, December 9, 2005
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