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Gary Younge
Screen test for America's first woman president

Struck down unexpectedly by an aneurysm, the president of the US is dying. His female vice-president is under pressure to resign and make way for a more rightwing man who the world would take more seriously. Even as her communications director writes her resignation speech, one of her male aides begs her to reconsider. "A female president," he says. "Can't you smell the history?"

It's fiction. But Tuesday night's television series premiere, Commander-in-Chief, starring Geena Davis, has sparked debate about whether and indeed when a woman could take over the White House. It couldn't come at a more prescient time. A poll this month revealed that 79% of Americans would be comfortable with a woman president.

Next month sees the release of two books on the subject. University of Southern California law professor, Susan Estrich, has written The Case for Hillary Clinton which, according to one published synopsis, argues that the New York senator "offers the Democrats a once-in-a-lifetime chance to break the White House glass ceiling and be the first party to elect a female president."

Meanwhile, Bill Clinton's former strategist, Dick Morris, is publishing a book, Condi v Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race, raising the possibility of a two-woman race between Ms Clinton and the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.

The White House Project, a nonpartisan group pushing for more women in leadership positions, organised viewing parties around the country for Tuesday's Commander-in-Chief show.

"You can't be what you can't see," Marie Wilson, the president of the Project, told the Los Angeles Times. "In this country, you could never see a woman president. In this show, Geena Davis is playing a very rich role as president - and then you start to shape public perception that she can do it."

The show, which has been greeted with mostly favourable reviews, is more than just the West Wing with a double X chromosome. Davis's character, Mackenzie Allen, is an independent vice-president in a Republican administration. The president's dying wish is that she resigns to make way for his ideological soulmate, House speaker Nathan Templeton (played by Donald Sutherland). She is told that the leaders of the Arab world would not take her seriously. Allen discusses her options with her children before making up her mind to resign, but then changes it again after Templeton derides her appointment as "a pure stunt". "This is not the time for social advances for social advances' sake," he says.

One of the principal issues is whether a woman would have the mettle to run the armed forces. "There's that whole once-a-month, 'will she or won't she push the button' thing," says Allen, deriding fears that she is not up to the job.

Her first act as president is to rescue a woman threatened with being stoned to death for adultery in Nigeria. As she heads to Congress for her first address, her youngest daughter spills grape juice over her blouse, forcing her to improvise and wear a scarf to cover up the stain.

Her husband, continually referred to as "the first lady", is fired as her chief-of-staff because she fears it will look as if he is running the show behind the scenes.

Describing the special screening in Caroline's Comedy Club on a young feminist website, feministing.com, a correspondent wrote: "I was more emotional over it than I wanted to be ... What was a little disappointing - but predictable - was that pretty much everyone at the event was over 40.

"It's the first time popular culture has said a woman can be in the Oval Office," Donna Good, who planned a 200-strong get-together in Boston to watch the premiere, told the Village Voice.

The US ranks 63rd in the representation of women in parliament - below Bolivia and the Philippines but above France and Italy. Women comprise 66 of the 435 members of Congress, 14 of the 100 senators and eight of the 50 governors. According to a 2001 study by the White House Project, men outnumber women as guests on the Sunday morning political talk shows by nine to one - a ratio that has widened since September 11.

In 1988, Democratic presidential hopeful Walter Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro to be his running mate - the closest any woman has come to taking either of the country's two top jobs.

With polls showing Ms Clinton to be the most favoured Democrat to run in 2008, the right have branded the show an "infomercial" for her campaign. This claim is bolstered by the fact Mr Clinton's former deputy communications director, Steve Cohen, is one of its writers.

"The opening salvo of Commander-in-Chief is a guilt trip for all those Americans who thought an unelected (and then-unelectable) feminist extremist should refrain from imposing her will upon the nation," writes Ben Johnson on FrontPagemagazine.com.

For once, those who hate Ms Clinton and those who love her have found common ground. "Hillary must have friends at ABC," said Bob Kunst, of hillarynow.com, a grassroots effort to "draft" Ms Clinton to stand as the next president. "This is just too much of a coincidence," he added.

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