FEAR NOT: this isn't another column about Hillary Clinton fashioning herself into a pragmatic, centrist force to be reckoned with in 2008, or how America always loves a good makeover--be it a toned-down junior senator from New York, a slimmed-down homemaker currently under house arrest, or a "big fat actress" looking to jump-start her career on Showtime.
The real story that bears watching is why Hollywood, after treating the former first lady rather unceremoniously throughout the last decade, is all of sudden enamored by the thought of a Clinton candidacy--so much so that one network is willing to put a pseudo-President Hillary on prime-time television.
Last week, ABC announced that Geena Davis will star as the nation's first female president in the one-hour drama pilot Commander in Chief. For Mrs. Clinton, it's a moral victory of sorts in that it's a step up from those '90s movies in which the first lady was easily disposable. That would include The American President, where Michael Douglas plays a widowed president, as well as Independence Day, where the first lady is off'ed by the alien horde. And let's not forget Primary Colors, the thinly disguised takeoff on the Clintons' run for the White House in which Emma Thompson plays a candidate's wife who's a walking billboard for Quaaludes and separate bedrooms.
So how do we know that ABC is looking to score points with Sen. Clinton, presumably a presidential candidate in 2008? Look no further than the choice of Ms. Davis as the show's star.
The actress is not only younger than Mrs. Clinton (Geena turns 50 next January; Hillary turns 58 this fall), she's also leaner than the senator, is at least a half-foot taller, was a Victoria's Secret lingerie model before she got into acting, belongs to Mensa, won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (The Accidental Tourist), once tried out for the U.S. Olympic archery team, and is fluent in Swedish (which would come in handy should Bill Clinton ever win that elusive Nobel Peace Prize).
In all, not a bad doppelganger. Or do you think the Clintons would really prefer that Camryn Manheim get the part?
(Not that Hollywood puts a lot of thought into this--how did The West Wing cast the decidedly un-buff Alan Alda as a socially moderate, fiscally conservative Republican from California named "Arnold"?)
Then again, perhaps this was a role that Geena Davis was meant to play. After all, there are instances where the actress's art imitated Hillary's real life.
Davis's first movie appearance was in Tootsie. Veteran Clinton watchers will recall that Tootsie was also the nickname that male Clinton campaign aides derogatorily slapped on Susan Thomases, Mrs. Clinton's longtime friend and political advisor, for her uncanny resemblance to Dustin Hoffman's cross-dressing character.
And both Geena's and Hillary's careers included a detour through Arkansas. Davis was the former half of the Thelma and Louise tandem, playing a long-suffering Arkansas housewife married to a sexist lunkhead. ("He kinda prides himself on being infantile," Thelma explains in the film.) Her character gets bonus Democratic points for trysting with Brad Pitt; and double-points for being emancipated by none other than Susan Sarandon.
ONE COULD ARGUE that the weekly showcasing of an effective female president might be Hollywood showing favoritism toward a certain Democratic icon. Except, of course, that no one has seen a script. And therein lies the potential for trouble, from the senator's perspective. At a time when Sen. Clinton is trying to broaden her appeal by moderating her stances on abortion and cultural values, will her fictional equivalent show the same flair for triangulation, or will ABC's prime-time version of Hillary be more of a Lifetime heroine?
If last week's reports are any indication, the Clintons should start worrying. According to one wire story, "The show, in the early stages of development, is described by ABC officials as a drama about the nation's first woman president--but unlike The West Wing, Chief will focus more on the president's family life." Which would seem at odds with the realpolitik of Hillary '08, where one of the main challenges is to keep the focus on the candidate's policy views rather than her complicated marriage.
That may explain why voters so far are of two minds when it comes to a Hillary presidential run. Fervent Clintonistas point to a Siena College poll in February which showed that 63 percent of the public said it's ready for a female president, and 53 percent said they'd vote for Sen. Clinton (the poll came out just days before Siena held a symposium on women presidents). More sobering was a recent poll by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, which found that 46 percent of voters want Sen. Clinton to run in 2008--up from 38 percent in December. The bad news: 49 percent said she shouldn't run; in December, it was 50 percent.
It gets worse for Sen. Clinton if, should she run, she gets past the primaries. In a head-to-head match-up with Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Marist poll showed McCain with a commanding 54-42 advantage. A Quinnipiac University Poll released this week has her in statistical dead-heat with McCain, trailing 43 percent to 41 percent. (Last month, Quinnipiac gave Hillary a 65 percent job-approval rating--with 8 out of 10 New Yorkers saying they'd heard little or nothing about her vaunted common-ground abortion speech.)
In 2008 would Hillary Clinton steer her party on a new course? Or, as like the final scene of Thelma and Louise, would her candidacy be just one more suicide drive off the canyon edge by the Democrats?
Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.