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TV show with female president may prepare U.S. for the real thing

WASHINGTON—Hollywood has always made dreams come true, at least on screen. Now its magic might help change American politics.

This fall's new hit TV show "Commander in Chief" could help a woman get elected president. By showing a strong female president leading in a time of war, the ABC show starring Geena Davis could help overcome some voters' lingering reluctance to put a female in charge of national security.

And that could make it easier for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or some other female candidate to win the White House, even in 2008.

While that might sound fanciful, culture often leads, shapes and influences American attitudes and politics. In the 1960s, "Star Trek" gave America the first televised interracial kiss and "Julia" gave it Diahann Carroll in the first starring role for an African-American woman.

Today, 1 out of 5 young people gets political news from comedy shows, politicians such as Arnold Schwarzenegger make major announcements on Jay Leno, and five times more votes were cast for "American Idol" than for the real American president.

Now comes Davis as Mackenzie Allen, a vice president who moves into the Oval Office upon the president's death. As the show's title suggests, early action focuses as much on her threatening military action as it does on her relationships with her husband and children.

"This will hurry history," said Marie Wilson, director of the White House Project, a group devoted to electing a female president.

Americans already appear open to electing a woman—at least in polls. Survey majorities say they would have no problem voting for a woman. While Americans have long trusted women to lead in areas such as education or health care, one recent poll showed a slim majority also said a woman would be no different from a man on questions of homeland security.

"The presence of real people like Condoleezza Rice and (former Secretary of State) Madeleine Albright has really changed people's comfort levels with women dealing with these issues," Wilson said.

Davis' TV show could add to that vital perception.

"These things matter," said Wilson, who wrote about the use of popular culture to change society in a book, "Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World."

"Television roles have not only kept up with the trends but been ahead of them," she said. "This is where people get their ideas about what it means to be powerful."

It's not automatic, of course.

Hollywood, for example, has consistently put Democrats in the Oval Office, sometimes very liberal Democrats. But the country has elected only two Democrats president in the last 40 years.

The show's creator, Rod Lurie, told television reporters before the season started that he hoped to influence American culture and thus its politics.

"It's my dream to see something like this happen," he said, adding that he thought the odds still were "stacked" against female candidates like Clinton. "However, if Hillary Clinton should get the nomination, we're all taking the credit."

Caught in a political maelstrom of bloggers ripping the show as a stalking horse for Clinton, Lurie said, "This is not a `You-go-Hillary' show, this is a `You-go-girl' show. I just want to see women in the process, whether they be Democrats or Republicans or independents. If there's any social agenda to the show, it's to be enthusiastic about the idea of a woman president—and an independent president."

Davis' character is labeled an independent, but early episodes suggest an anti-Republican streak. She was chosen by a Republican president, but he asked her to resign when he knew he was dying because he didn't want her to get the top job. And her chief nemesis is a conservative Republican speaker of the House of Representatives.

Yet even some Republicans see benefits in the show's cultural impact.

"It speaks to a lot of voters," said Crystal Dueker, a Fargo, N.D., businesswoman who founded a group to draft Rice for the 2008 Republican nomination.

Dueker has driven around the country in a Mini Cooper jammed with Rice posters and bumper stickers, speaking to such groups as the National Federation of Republican Women. When she learned about the new ABC show, she knew it would help her sales pitch. Her group, Americans For Rice, aired an ad about Rice on New Hampshire's dominant TV station during the first show.

"Since art imitates life," she said, "we want to do the reverse."

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For more on the draft Rice group, www.americansforrice.com/

For more on the White House Project, www.thewhitehouseproject.org/

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GROUNDBREAKING WOMEN IN TV

Lucille Ball. "I Love Lucy." First TV pregnancy—though the network barred the word "pregnant."

Diahann Carroll. "Julia." First African-American woman in starring role.

Marlo Thomas. "That Girl." Fought network to let character live alone in an apartment.

Mary Tyler Moore. "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Older, unmarried career woman.

Candice Bergen. "Murphy Brown." Has child out of wedlock, outraging Vice President Dan Quayle.

Ellen DeGeneres. "Ellen." Lesbian comes out of the closet.

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WOMEN IN TV, FILM ROLES IN OR NEAR THE OVAL OFFICE

1964. "Kisses for My President." Polly Bergen resigns as president when she gets pregnant.

1997. "Air Force One." Glenn Close as tough vice president.

2000. "The Contender." Joan Allen toughs out sex scandal to become vice president.

2005. "Commander in Chief." Geena Davis as President Mackenzie Allen (named for Joan Allen).

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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