Is there a woman in the house?

Someday, behind a great president, will stand her husband

MADAM PRESIDENT: SHATTERING THE LAST GLASS CEILING By Eleanor Clift and Tom Brazaitis Scribner 350 pp., $26

Can women in positions of elected executive power control their sexual impulses better than men?

How would an American woman president handle an international meltdown like the Cuban Missile crisis?

More immediately, would a female running mate this fall give a presidential candidate an advantage?

Husband-wife team Tom Brazaitis (Washington senior editor for The Cleveland Plain Dealer) and Eleanor Clift (an original McLaughlin Group screamer and contributing editor for Newsweek) seek to answer those and a list of other questions that ultimately boil down to this: Why hasn't one of the most powerful and socially progressive countries in history elected a female president, and when will it get around to it?

For decades, Americans have become used to and comfortable with women in power in other countries. Developed and developing countries have been led by a line of women who ruled with various levels of success: Margaret Thatcher in Britain; Corazn Aquino in the Philippines; Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan; and much earlier, Golda Meir in Israel.

The value of this book is its exploration of why American public opinion seems stunted when it comes to trusting only men in the highest positions of power, and what it will take for a woman to make it to the presidency.

For those with their nose pressed closely to the window of Washington, the 65 women representatives in Congress suggest wide gains for women. But in general, certainly proportionately, women's gains at the highest levels of power are incremental. Only three governorships are held by women.

"Madam" examines polling data that suggests Americans still rank women "less capable on foreign policy, law-and-order issues, and the economy. And they score significantly lower on the ability to lead during a crisis and the ability to make difficult decisions."

In getting to the bottom of why those perceptions exist, "Madam" turns back to the past, recent and distant, in American politics.

From former representative Geraldine Ferraro's vice-presidential bid in 1984, to Elizabeth Dole's primary outing last spring, the book accurately charts the change that moved women from stuffing envelopes in back rooms to the US Congress and the president's cabinet.

Clift, nicknamed Eleanor "Rodham" Clift by those who claim she has made a vocation of defending the Clintons, notes the current administration has made powerful women the norm. Much ink is given to the role Hillary Clinton has played in the White House and to the first lady's current history-making run for the New York Senate seat.

Moreover, Madeleine Albright over the years has gone toe to toe with men some consider the rogue gallery of US foreign policy. On national TV, she scolded Fidel Castro's regime and the MIG pilots who shot down unarmed Cuban-Americans. She was also convincing when she growled warnings at the Serbs before, during, and after the allied bombing campaign.

And whether you support or loathe her, Attorney General Janet Reno has shown great personal resolve in appointing a list of independent counsels to investigate the Clinton administration, while showing equal resolve to defy Congress and her own FBI director when she disagrees with them.

Also included are well-written profiles of the women from both parties most likely to come within striking distance of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the next 20 years. Sections on Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democratic lieutenant governor of Maryland, and Christine Todd Whitman, the Republican governor of New Jersey, are particularly interesting.

For Republican women candidates waiting in the wings, the book offers a well-considered coda, a how-to for women that covers the topical and the meaningful. Given Clift's background, her prediction that the first woman president will likely be a Republican has even more weight. She suggests that the American public will someday choose a female commander-in-chief but - in keeping with American political tradition - they won't want radical change.

*James Thurman is a former Washington reporter for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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