WASHINGTON -- First Lady Hillary Clinton predicted recently that a woman will be a serious candidate for president in 20 years.
She cautiously used the word "candidate," not "president."
And she appears to have picked the two-decade figure out of the air, a sufficiently distant time frame to allow for all sorts of unforeseeable political developments.
Mrs. Clinton's prediction came when she was asked why she herself didn't "step outside the box" and seek the presidency. She replied realistically that "there are boxes and there are boxes that are on other planets. . . I do think we will have a serious [female] candidate in 20 years."
The notion that the first lady might run for president herself circulated widely in the early days of the Clinton administration before she overreached on health-care reform and fell dramatically from public favor. We have not heard it lately.
Popular first lady
Her popularity has soared recently to 59 percent, largely because she adopted a lower profile and now concentrates on nonthreatening subjects, such as the rights of women and children abroad. But there is little chance she would risk a run in her own right. "I don't think she'd ever run -- not in a hundred years," the president once said.
The only other prominent woman in public life today mentioned as a presidential prospect is American Red Cross President Elizabeth Dole, who has served in two Cabinet jobs. Many Republicans feel she is not only qualified but also could narrow the gender gap; women who voted for President Clinton's re-election outnumbered those who voted for her husband Bob in 1996 by 17 percentage points.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich introduced Mrs. Dole during her husband's 1996 presidential campaign by noting, "She could easily have been the nominee for president had she wanted it."
"I really believe this country's ready for a woman president," Mrs. Dole has said. But she has resisted pressure to run for governor of North Carolina or a Senate seat and shows no inclination to substitute her own name for her husband's on a national ballot.
She is also mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate, a job for which no one can campaign openly.
Bob Dole says, "When you have people like Elizabeth and [Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright around, you know it [a female president] is going to happen very soon."
Few in the pool
The trouble with envisioning the first woman president is that there are no other obvious candidates. There are only eight female senators and two female governors, the pool from which White House candidacies normally come. None seems interested in making a race.
A Freedom Forum poll in May reported that 31 percent of men and 26 percent of women surveyed felt that a woman will be elected president in 2000 or 2004. That's not in 20 years -- that's practically tomorrow.
Voter bias against women in high office, even the presidency, is no longer the cultural hurdle it used to be. But polls that show an overwhelming majority ready to vote for a female president can be misleading. It is easy to approve a theoretical concept but quite another thing to vote for a specific figure with a specific agenda.
The toughness factor
Former Democratic congresswoman Patricia Schroeder ran a brief exploratory presidential campaign in 1988 on the theory that the country was finally "man enough to back a woman." She had served on the House Armed Services Committee and thought she could buck the traditional fear that no woman is tough enough to have her finger on the nuclear button as commander-in-chief. She found out otherwise.
She wasn't taken seriously and couldn't raise big bucks. "People wanted to play with my novelty," she sighed. "They didn't want to talk issues. One of the big questions was: Why should we have a man as first lady?"
She wept when she pulled out of the contest, which was widely interpreted as a sign of womanly weakness. She promptly compiled a file of male leaders who had been spotted shedding tears, including presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. But the double standard prevailed. What made the men look kindly made her look unstable.
Former New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro also had a rough time in 1984 as the first woman nominated for vice president on a major party's national ticket. Men asked about her family and about baking cookies, not about her legislative expertise as a congresswoman from the Bronx.
Her husband's tangled finances became an embarrassing issue. In fairness to her, however, Walter Mondale's political problems were so overwhelming that no one could have saved him from defeat, man or woman.
In politics, change often comes slowly, but it does come. A woman will reach the White House in time. Maybe her name will be Chelsea.
Marianne Means is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 12/15/97