May 2006

Arts & Letters

The first woman

By Kerryn Goldsworthy

‘Commander in Chief’

Poor old President Mackenzie Allen just never seems to get a quiet moment to herself. If it’s not a tanker threatening to leak oil up and down the east coast of the United States, then it’s her whiny neo-con teenage daughter sneaking off with a scheming boyfriend. If it’s not terrorists smuggling explosives across the Canadian border, then it’s her husband – the ‘First Gentleman’ – sulking because she’d really rather he didn’t take the private-sector job he’s just been offered: Commissioner of Baseball.

I’m making it sound worse than it is, but not much. A TV show about the first female president of the US was an idea whose time had come, and many of us were looking forward to it and badly wanted to like it. And no doubt it’s true that such a woman would be expected to juggle the personal and the political, and have a very hard time doing it, in a way that a man simply would not. As it is, the personal–political issue, here unthinkingly presented as a dichotomy, lies squarely at the heart of the show.

‘Troubled’ is the word that’s been used most often in the US about Commander in Chief. The ‘troubles’ have been various: staffing, ratings, loss of nerve. America’s ABC Network pulled the show mid-season and it was only restored to US screens in mid-April – but in what’s widely regarded as a graveyard timeslot. Commander in Chief has only been showing in the US since last October and is already on its third ‘show runner’: series creator and original director-writer Rod Lurie was all-too-briefly replaced last November by television legend Steven Bochco of Hill Street Blues fame. Bochco’s aim was to focus less on family and more on politics, in episodes not yet seen here; that must have made it a better show but didn’t help the ratings. Early this year Bochco left the show and it was temporarily taken off the air.

Changes in the writing staff, at least, were badly needed. But, despite its truly awful dialogue, the show has a solid and intriguing premise, with Rod Lurie solving some of the initial plot problems in quite clever ways. The back-story is that Vice-President Mackenzie ‘Mac’ Allen (Geena Davis), formerly the president of a liberal-arts college and an independent federal senator, has been chosen as a running mate by President Teddy Roosevelt Bridges, a Republican. In the pilot episode, she’s called out of a public function to be told that Bridges, in the middle of his term of office, has suffered a brain aneurysm and she is now acting president. Bridges tells her, from what turns out to be his deathbed, that he wants her to step down in favour of the Speaker of the House, Nathan Templeton (Donald Sutherland), a Republican.

Allen is about to make way for Templeton – very reluctantly, for she dislikes his politics and despises his Machiavellian ways – when a particularly unpleasant and dismissive remark from him about another woman makes her change her mind and refuse to step down. The episode ends with Mac’s inaugural speech, which she delivers impromptu after Templeton has sabotaged her autocue and her younger daughter Amy has sabotaged her white blouse, by sloshing orange juice all over it on the way to the inauguration.

It’s clever: apart from anything else, it sets up a situation in which Davis’s character, intended to be wholly sympathetic, won’t be automatically hated by half the American population for being on the wrong side of politics. Rod Lurie has said his invention of the character was grounded in her independence from either main party – especially since she believes she can’t win an actual election. “She feels she can’t win two years from now,” Lurie commented, “so she can do whatever she wants, which means what is right for the country.”

Without being doctrinaire or even particularly obvious about it, the show is grounded in the premise that a womanly style of leadership is fundamentally different from that favoured by patriarchal culture. Mac’s solutions to her political problems, whether they’re external crises or internal brawling and white-anting, are of a kind that even the sternest feminist would approve: compromise and consensus, leavened with a hefty dose of rat cunning, rather than the sort of confrontational and adversarial chest-beating, tub-thumping and sabre-rattling that one just knows would be Nathan Templeton’s presidential style. But, unfortunately, the problems are too simplified, the solutions too glib and the formula too neat; each week you can almost hear the creaking as the plot turns into the home straight, ten minutes before the end. And, of course, Mac always wins. It’s that kind of show.

Comparisons with The West Wing were inevitable and have not been flattering, primarily because of the dialogue, some of it execrable and most of it slow. Yet Commander in Chief compares favourably with The West Wing, as far as international viewers are concerned, in one important way. Situations are painted in broad brushstrokes that show the generalities, rather than the hothouse particulars, of political life. So when the leaking oil tanker threatens the coastline and it comes down to a choice between putting Florida’s coastline at risk and putting the whole east coast at a somewhat smaller risk, it is an issue of states’ rights versus the national interest: something that Australian viewers can relate to easily.

Mac inevitably has to juggle being a president with being a mom and this, alas, produces American family drama at its most sick-making, particularly in the case of the poisonous teenage daughter, who really ought be packed off to boarding school under armed guard. There are obvious shades here of Jenna Bush’s drinking convictions or Chelsea Clinton’s inappropriate miniskirt, but there’s one small difference: it’s their daddies who were and are the ‘leaders of the free world’. Not their mommies. There has been no savage and unrelenting pressure, public or private, on any hapless real-life presidential parent thus far to be the primary caregiver and run the US. Mackenzie Allen, on the other hand, has to do most of the parenting, and not only of her children but also of the sulky, resentful prat she’s married to. No wonder she looks tired.

The most interesting relationship on Commander in Chief is the one between the president and her archenemy Nathan Templeton, the disappointed aspirant to the Oval Office job. Templeton is played with silken and weaselly charm by the incomparable Donald Sutherland, who gets the best out of Davis as an actress; in their tete-a-tete scenes there’s often sufficient vicious chemistry to offset the limping script. Mac gets to be a resistant and feisty strategist instead of just being diplomatic and suffocatingly nice, and the whole thing ramps up about fifteen points.

There’s constant speculation that the future might hold a battle for the US presidency between Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice, and Commander in Chief posits a few of the situations that a female president might find herself up against. One thing this show makes clear is that a husband and family are likely to be more of a liability than a support, yet without them a woman might find herself unelectable. Clinton is in the box seat here: her one kid has grown up, and her husband, having already spent eight years in the job, is unlikely to be miffed if she wants to have a go. Meanwhile, the only current Australian contender for female leadership is Julia Gillard, who has already been criticised for the unwomanly crimes of having a clean kitchen and no children, but we’re unlikely to see a local show about a female leader on our screens for a very long time. If ever.

Cover: May 2006
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