Who Will Be Our First Woman President?
In 1989 a bespectacled girl with a yellow ribbon in her hair asked Gerald Ford if he had any advice for a “young lady wanting to become president of the United States.” Ford didn’t recommend the best schools or list acts of service. He didn’t even answer her question, instead pivoting to a morbid prediction.
“I will tell you how I think it will happen, because it won’t happen in the normal course of events,” Ford, an unpopular, unelected one-term president, told the hundred or so children gathered at the Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in Iowa on a late October day. The first woman to ascend to the presidency, he said, would be promoted, just as he had been when Richard Nixon resigned after Watergate.
But other than that, Ford’s story and his imagined first woman president’s differed in critical ways. Nixon appointed Ford to the vice presidency after Spiro Agnew resigned. A woman vice president would have to be elected with the president in a general election, like Selina Meyer, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, in the HBO show Veep, but Ford hoped she would escape the complications of a disgraced president. Political death left a foul stench, but mortal death was easily covered by the sweet smell of nostalgia.
“A president will die and the woman will become president…within the next four or eight years,” Ford concluded. In 2023 his timeline sounds Pollyannish, but in the 1980s it was tethered to reality. Geraldine Ferraro, a 48-year-old congresswoman from Queens, had just had an unsuccessful but historic run alongside Democratic presidential hopeful Walter Mondale. In 2008 Republican senator John McCain chose Sarah Palin, then governor of Alaska, as his vice presidential running mate. And the only woman to run for president on a major party ticket, Hillary Clinton, won the popular vote but lost the election.
Three decades later Ford’s prophecy is overdue and, thanks to casting choices by the American electorate, uncomfortably plausible: Kamala Harris, 58, is the first woman to be elected vice president, alongside Joe Biden, 80, the oldest sitting president in American history. He held that honor on inauguration day, besting Ronald Reagan, who was a year younger when he left office—at which point the Gipper was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Biden has his moments, but he’s as fit for office as a woman over 35 is for pregnancy—yet the latter is called geriatric for a reason. Once people pass a certain age, there are undeniable risks and inevitable vulnerabilities. If Biden secures a second term, he would leave the office at 86; his father was 87 years old when he died.
George Washington feared dying in office. The framers set no term limits, certain that Washington’s legendary self-control would influence his tenure. He worried that if he stayed too long the choice would be out of his control. If he served until the end, so would all the presidents who followed him, and a precedent that looked awfully like a monarchy would be set, threatening the future of the infant republic. On March 4, 1797, at the age of 65, Washington left office and devoted himself to animal husbandry and a lengthy home renovation to-do list. He didn’t get far. On December 14, 1799, he died at Mount Vernon. If he had remained in office, he would have died halfway through his third term.
Washington never predicted a vice president like Kamala Harris, but it’s a scenario Hollywood has long explored. In The Last Man on Earth (1924), a woman is president because men have been wiped out by disease, and in Mars Attacks!, an extraterrestrial invasion promotes Natalie Portman from first daughter to president. Prison Break, Scandal, House of Cards, and Quantico easily imagine a woman in the highest office—for a limited time only. In Kisses for My President (1963), the leader of the free world resigns because she is pregnant and wants to devote herself to her family. In 24, the president spends her retirement in prison, and on Homeland an exonerated woman president still resigns. I haven’t seen anything like Nikki Haley’s recent announcement, but she’s being dismissed on merit, not gender; as the Wall Street Journal wrote, there is “no clear rationale for her candidacy.”
Onscreen, a woman president is a last resort or a placeholder, ultimately too emotional or distracted by family, with the exception of Veep: Selina Meyer inherits the presidency only to be bested by another woman in the next election. And then, like a petite, bawdy 21st-century Grover Cleveland, she secures a nonconsecutive term. It may sound like the kind of wild ride cooked up by a bunch of writers in L.A., but the stage has long been set.
“Men better be careful,” Ford warned. Once Americans see what a woman president can do, men will “have a hard, hard time even getting a nomination.”